Is High-Impact Exercise Bad for Me?
Have you ever been told that running, jumping, bounding, skipping or galloping is bad for your joints because it’s high impact?
What if I told you this wasn’t a full truth? What if I told you that it’s just like the myths that ‘fat is bad for you’ and ‘carbohydrates are bad for you?’
‘High-impact’ training, which is difficult to define in the first place, basically got a bad rep in the 1990’s and like fat, the myth just doesn’t want to seem to die out already.
At the time it was thought that high impact activities created too much ‘wear and tear’ on the joint, leading to a belief that it might also be leading to arthritis.
However, more recently a Stanford study published in 2008 showed that after tracking 1000 runners and non-runners for 21 years, the runners were no more likely to end up with arthritis than non-runners.
In fact, this research, and other research indicates that impact on the joint is a good thing, these researchers noted that the runners might actually delay the onset of conditions like arthritis and are better able to manage the condition by continuing to run.
Other positive observations have been noted in research as well.
Australian researchers (and others) have shown that people who participate in high impact activities have healthier and thicker bone cartilage in the knees.
This means an increased resistance to injury, an increase in quality of life and it can help you shed lbs and keep them off too.
Just like any other kind of exercise, the body’s response to impact is to adapt to it.
So by encouraging impact (appropriately) we are doing the body a vital service.
Impact is actually quite good for your joints because it increases ligament and tendon tensile strength, it increases cartilage formation in the joint — preventing degradation of cartilage essentially or even improving it once some degradation has occurred — it contributes to bone density increases — a good thing for an aging population, much like strength training — and improves joint capsule resistance to wear and tear.
It is often our natural psychological response to stop loading a joint after injury, with disease or even aging.
We feel as if we should ‘take it easy‘ when in fact this is often the worst thing we can be doing.
What we should be doing is rehabilitating back into high impact exercise for the preventative health benefits it provides (lifting in a heavy 3-6 reps range also shows similar benefits to ligament, tendon, cartilage and general bone health).
The positive benefits of loading a joint regularly (in a spectrum of loading patterns from low to high is essential) also include delaying or preventing bone diseases like osteoporosis and osteopenia.
Once you’ve learned how to move well again, via weight training, it’s time to add velocity to the movement and impact.
There are people (often even in my profession) who actively tell others not to run because it’s ‘high-impact’ and I think this is a bad idea for your health, particularly your quality of life in the long-run.
People who abstain from impact, dramatically increase their injury potential doing simple things like playing with their kids, a game of touch football in the yard with family and other pleasant physically social activities.
Running is a primal movement pattern, it is hardwired as a part of the developmental process, all kids learn to run on their own, with no guidance from us.
Babies also learn to pull their heads back, lift there arms up and back from their stomach, they learn to roll over from side to side, they learn to push themselves up into a balance on all fours, then they naturally explore this range of movement, testing gravity through multiple planes like lifting one arm and or leg up at a time, then they start to link that movement together into crawling.
From crawling they figure out how to get into a half kneeling position, which looks curiously a lot like the bottom of a lunge and also a squat position, whereby they can pull themselves to standing, using assistance at first until they can stand on their own.
Then they tie that into walking, taking those first few steps until they crash down, repeatedly.
This all then ties into developing velocity of movement as they use that walking ability and transition into running, then jumping, then climbing, etc…
Part of a growing problem in Western societies, is that we move very little any more and stop expressing many of these abilities.
Why crawl anymore when you can walk?
Why do exercises on the floor when we can do them seated or standing?
Well because expressing movements that we’ve left behind is a key determining factor in maintaining good physical health.
All of those various components in the developmental process naturally train the body to move well holistically.
When we lose these basic abilities, it eventually translates into poor movement that we want to do, like walking, sitting up and down, lifting stuff off the floor, putting something high on a shelf, etc…
Poor movement, or biomotor ability is the leading cause of non-contact injury.
A growing trend in rehabilitation that is showing a lot of promise is moving back into these developmental patterns, to re-teach the body how to move appropriately and running is certainly a part of that mix.
More and more frequently physiotherapists, chiropractors and other medical professions are going back to the basics of things like ‘breathing on your stomach,’ ‘rolling over’ or, ‘crawling’ properly as a form of rehabilitating appropriate movement patterns that are ingrained within our motor system, just rarely used by us appropriately anymore.
This is the centre of PRI, DNS, MovNat, PrimalMove, FMS and even StrongFirst methodologies (all rehab and movement methodologies).
Running is in this spectrum too, albeit at a slightly higher level of nervous system control and patterning at a higher velocity.
Running semi-regularly is a beneficial physical ability that is ours to lose if we don’t maintain it with proper training, progression, volume and appropriate surfaces (equipment usage).
Running is natural, and if you don’t use it, you lose it.
In the Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) protocol — and it applies to every person as they go through the developmental process, not just people who will become elite athletes — these movements are staples.
They are awfully convenient, but what most people don’t realize is that they can make your movement patterns worse, so when I say go out and run and jump and play, I’m not necessarily recommending that you go to the gym this afternoon, hop on a treadmill and call that running.
Most machines significantly alter your body’s natural movement patterns.
On a treadmill you are required to ‘keep up’ with the mill, which negates any push-off and ground-reaction forces so you end up with really over-developed quads and under-developed hamstrings and glutes which serve to ‘pull’ you through your stride.
The stability required of your calves is also reduced, so you end up with gross muscle imbalances in the majority of circumstances with too much treadmill work, and thus increased injury potential.
This all greatly alters how you run and your technique for when you run naturally again.
This isn’t to say you can’t do it from time to time, I have had some fairly elite runners do some work on the treadmill from time to time for instance because speed work and/or tempo work is easy to do on a treadmill —though it’s still not really my first choice…
What I am saying is use a treadmill sparingly and your knees, ankles and low back will thank you for it.
Go run outside, preferably on soft surfaces like turf, track or grass, even sand, if you’re not training for a marathon type event. Use natural surfaces where ever possible.
Use tights and other cold weather gear in winter if plausible.
If you absolutely must use a treadmill, I recommend the ‘Curve‘ by a company called Woodway, because it is self-powered and is currently the next best thing to running outside.
The Curve forces you to create ground reaction forces the most similar to running outside, it is your stride that gets the belt started and keeps it going at whatever speed you can manage.
If unavailable — and most likely it is, as this is a fairly new type of treadmill not yet in a lot of gyms — then Woodway makes very good high speed treadmills that handle abuse and distribute force WAY better than most commercial treadmills or home treadmills.
Downside here is that the high powered Woodway’s are very expensive and still rather elusive to find in most commercial gym facilities.
And other so-called ‘low impact’ machines like the Gazelle, the Nordic Trek, etc…
Honestly, the fitness equipment industry has been playing into the fear of ‘high-impact’ activities with most of these styles of equipment.
Ellipticals should only be used if you have an existing condition that would prevent you from running in my opinion, or if biking, or rowing are not an option.
Because it’s not a primal movement, your body is designed to absorb and distribute forces.
Knowing how to operate an ellipitical machine is not a part of our physical development process.
It is a man-made machine, designed to take stress off the knee joint.
However, if you know anything about physics, force gets distributed somewhere it doesn’t just ‘disappear.’ It seems the place it gets transferred to is the ankles and low back, though the machine does absorb some force.
Besides that side note, the elliptical significantly alters your gait.
If you ever want to run, jog or have to move fast (i.e. run away from an accident maybe?) you will be inadequately prepared to deal with this stress because your body has altered how it moves and again increase your injury potential.
If you go back to running, your gait now leads to terrible technique. You essentially have to ‘re-learn’ how to run all over again.
These machines, also mess with your walking gait too, because you never have to roll off the big toe on the elliptical machine — which you do running and walking.
Ultimately if you’re healthy, I think you should avoid these machines as much as possible.
What About Rowers or Bikes?
I like biking and rowing.
However, you can say similar things about them as you can the elliptical.
The only difference is the they are both sports and they are both forms of transportation in some form or another.
I bike to work most days, but I also train in a way to balance out the volume of riding I do, so I don’t develop bad posture in other areas in my life — hunched over bike posture is good for performance not so good for your body the rest of your life, just ask any former competitive cyclist.
Training needs to balance out the volume of work you put through very specific and limited ranges of movement, or you increase the likelihood again of movement impairment syndromes — or movement compensation patterns in the rest of your life.
In my opinion, if you are going to do a lot of biking or rowing, you should at least maintain some quality of running (as a primal movement pattern), though you don’t have to do a lot of it to maintain the skill, maybe running as little as once a week or a few times per month.
You just need to load your joints semi-frequently, and you could use something like heavy weight training to off-set the amount of running you do as well.
If you don’t use it, you lose it, basically.
Jumping, Bounding, Skipping, etc…?
All really good movement patterns, again primal patterns that we figure out on our own.
It is more detrimental to stop them for too long than to use them appropriately.
I speak from a recent experience where I had foolishly eliminated most of these from my own training regime for far too long, focusing far too much attention strictly on weight training.
When I picked up a sport again, just for fun, my body was ill-prepared for the demands and I suffered a severe calf tear and nearly 10 months later my body has not completely recovered from (if only psychologically).
Yes, jumping, bounding and skipping are more stressful than running, but I still encourage them with the people I work with, right up to 65+ years old.
However it’s important to modify it depending on skill, for many of my older clients we do more box jumping and stick landings in various positions, with the hope that improved technique can lead to higher levels of loading.
In the likelihood that they would ever have to catch themselves quickly from falling, these drills prevent people from losing the necessary skill to decelerate high amounts of force quickly.
You have to jump (and run) at a level that is appropriate for your level of skill for it to be useful.
Not using these techniques semi-regularly, even at lower levels — pogo jumps, low box landings, drop-squats, etc… — affects the stability and reactivity of the musculature in your body too, a prime factor in quality of life as we age.
Particularly the calf and hip musculature, we want to exercise at various tempos, and running/jumping is the best way to train the explosive speed-strength component of life — a quality we lose the fastest with age along with mobility.
Skipping rope in particular, is an excellent way to maintain this quality, as it requires excellent dexterity, coordination, fast deceleration/acceleration, serves as a great cardiovascular exercise and can be used for as little as 5 minutes a workout in either a warm-up or as a workout finisher.
The real reason people say ‘high-impact’ exercise is bad for you is the following:
- Too much volume is done, which increases the likelihood of injury — you don’t need to run or jump 6x a week to benefit from training the pattern, jogging for an hour is a lot of repetition
- Bad technique is used. Bad technique is often caused by a lack of use, lifestyle (sitting too much, or using ‘un-natural’ machines like elliptical machines alters how you move) and/or injury
- The wrong or unnatural surfaces are used. Pavement, concrete and things like tile are not surfaces our bodies have adapted to utilize well yet. We are far more familiar and conditioned for running and jumping on more cushioned surfaces like grass, dirt/trails, sand and even tracks, hardwood gym floors, or some rubberized surfaces (something with some give), so unless you are planning on running marathons, I recommend you avoid hard surfaces in your training.
- Bad footwear alters our gait. Of course running on hard surfaces had something to do with running shoe design, but this also made a lot of people heel strikers (try and heel strike in your bare-feet as you run, it is next to impossible). The heel lift also makes us use more quad and less hips, encouraging the faulty movement mechanics I mentioned above, and leads to potential knee problems.
Even low-impact training can be bad for your joints if you ignore technique.
I believe everybody should train running and jumping as a skill semi-regularly.
It should be planned appropriately, in tolerable loads to the individual, and thus you may need the advice of a good coach, or leave a comment and I’m happy to help.
The volume should be appropriate to your level of skill.
The style should be appropriate to your level of skill — you can do a few 10-40m runs with rest intervals, once a week or a few times a month even if you maintain the skill.
You should use non-loading exercises like elliptical machines, bikes or rowers mostly if you have a pre-existing medical condition (i.e. are not considered healthy, and it is recommended by your rehab specialist or doctor).
Unless of course you compete in biking or rowing sports, in which case your training should balance the demands of those sports through other means (mobility and strength training).
If you are healthy, you should use these modalities sparingly and not at the expense of losing your primal movement patterns, which you will use in your every day life at some point, even if you don’t mean to deliberately.
I’m not saying, don’t bike, don’t use the elliptical or don’t row.
They are good for your cardiovascular health still, just be aware that they alter gait with too much use and you need to train to bring your body back into your neutral position. (i.e. biking, train the posterior chain more to compensate for the forward posture).
There is more to fitness than just your cardiovascular fitness…
I know this article was a mouthful, so if you have any questions about any of this, please leave a comment and I’m happy to help.