Is High-Impact Exercise Safe for Older Adults?
In most cases, yes. And it can be hugely beneficial—as long as you follow these tips.
For many older adults, high-impact exercise might as well be a four-letter word. It doesn’t have to be.
The training style, often associated with jumps, has a reputation of being hard on your joints and therefore likely to cause injury. But it turns out the issue of impact isn’t so straightforward. And in many older adults, high-impact exercises—when done with proper form—can be hugely beneficial.
Here’s what you should know before you jump in.
What Exactly Is High-Impact Exercise?
Running may be the poster child of high-impact exercise, but it’s just one of many options. Impact refers to the downward forces temporarily placed on the body when contacting a surface, usually the floor.
That means there’s a spectrum of higher-impact activity, says Cindy Brehse, a senior exercise specialist and a SilverSneakers instructor in Florida. This starts with any weight-bearing aerobic exercise—meaning anything you do on your feet with your bones supporting your weight. And it ends with higher-impact plyometric movements, including skips, hops, and jumps, she says.
Because these exercises place a large amount of force on the body—not just the muscles, but also the bones and connective tissues—there is natural concern over how the body will handle those forces, explains Claudette M. Lajam, M.D., an associate professor of orthopedic surgery at NYU Langone Health in New York.
“This is why many forms of ‘joint-friendly exercise,’ such as swimming and cycling, involve little to no impact,” Brehse says. Aerobics classes and even walking can also place a moderate amount of stress on the body as you march or step up and down, she adds.
The Benefits of High-Impact Exercise
“Emerging research shows that, in many cases, high-impact exercise is not only safe for the body’s bones and connective tissues, but it can actually help prevent injury,” Dr. Lajam says.
In an American Journal of Health Promotion study, premenopausal women who performed jumps at least 10 times twice per day increased their hip bone density after four months. Those who did 20 jumps twice per day saw even greater improvements in their bone density. On the flip side, those who avoided high-impact jumps lost hip bone density over the duration of the study.
“That may be because under the right conditions, every stress the body experiences can be an opportunity for growth,” Brehse says. “Just like your muscles get stronger when they recover from a session of strength training, your bone can grow in response to impact.”
The downward force of your weight on your bones—which multiplies with high-impact activities—stimulates specialized cells called osteoblasts to travel to the stressed area of bone and reinforce it with collagen that calcifies, Dr. Lajam explains.
The result: stronger bones, along with a reduced risk of osteoporosis, fractures, and even falls.
The benefits of high-impact exercise on bone health may be even greater in older adults. When men ages 65 to 80 performed 50 hops per day on one randomly selected leg, they saw improvement in the bone mineral density of that leg compared with their other leg over the course of one year, according to a study in Bone.
Is High-Impact Exercise Right for You?
As with any new exercise, the first step is talking to your doctor about what’s safe for you, especially if you have a chronic condition, balance issues, or injuries. If you have:
Osteoporosis: The stress of high-impact exercise could put you at risk of stress fractures, but you’ll want to use as much impact as you can tolerate to keep your bones strong. Talk to your doctor about the best way to do this, and follow these four rules for exercising with osteoporosis.
Arthritis: High-impact activities aren’t necessarily off-limits, but you’ll want to take precautions. Talk to your doctor about how to protect your joints, and follow these dos and don’ts of exercising with arthritis.
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Diabetes: High-impact exercise may not be right for you, especially if you have diabetic neuropathy. Talk to your doctor about the best low- to medium-impact activities for you, and follow these dos and don’ts of exercising with diabetes.
How to Do High-Impact Exercise Safely
Once you get any necessary guidance from your doctor, adopt a slow-and-steady approach to any increases in impact, Brehse says. If you’ve long avoided impact in favor of things like swimming and cycling, try exercising on the elliptical and walking. And if that feels comfortable, you can move toward plyometric exercises such as skips, hops, and jogging.
“Try integrating a set of jumping jacks into your workouts each day for a week before progressing to two and three sets,” Brehse suggests. If regular ones are too hard on your knees, try these jumping jack alternatives. “Then experiment with skips and single-leg hops.”
Along the way, listen to your body and scale back if you experience joint pain during or after exercising. If the pain is intense or does not go away after a couple of days, talk to your doctor.
“It’s not about keeping up with the person next to you, but about moving in a way that feels good to you,” Brehse says.
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