Let’s Talk Fitness: Choosing the best exercise intensity and impact for your body

Welcome to Let’s Talk Fitness, a digital space where we encourage and inspire each other to lead more active healthy lifestyles. I am your host Renee Reed, a fitness coach and boomer, who refuses to slow down and act my “age.”

Today’s Talk is about finding the Holy Grail of fitness training and choosing the best-suited exercise intensity and impact for your body.

It’s that time of year when people are looking for fitness solutions, trying to determine which type or place they want to join. A huge part of this decision (should) involve determining what is best for your body and your emotions, especially if you want your resolution to stick.

It can be a bit intimidating and unnerving to step into a new workout environment. We worry about fitting in and finding time. Some of us worry about being able to perform the exercises. A few of us may also be a bit disgusted with how we let ourselves go. This, or not fully understanding the type of training involved, can cause the selection of a program that may not be the best match for your body.

Whether these are concerns for you or not, one thing that should be is the type of type of training you select. This boils down to two primary components: the level of work (intensity) and amount of force (impact).

One thing I hear from clients is “I can’t do high intensity exercise.” There was a time when I believed this of myself. After spending much of my life, highly active, performing and driven to win, I didn’t know any other way except full throttle, highly physical, heart pumping, running and jumping. Over time, my joints started to fail, and I stopped most physical activity. I believed I could no longer exercise, a mindset reinforced by my orthopedist’s instructions to avoid anything that “hurt.” Since pretty much everything physical hurt, I ended up sitting around eating, reading, eating, computing, eating, watching tv, eating – you get the picture.

More than 10 years inactive and desperate to lose weight, I went on a seven-year fitness journey which ended with my becoming a fitness trainer and opening 6 Movements Fitness Studio. Initially, I believed the intensity that I sought to lose weight, burn stress and give me a nice endorphin high, could only be found through exercise that included a high degree of impact. This was old-school thinking and I later understood that almost any exercise, including those that are low in impact, can be performed at high intensity.

While some people have medical conditions that preclude raising their blood pressure or heart rate, the majority who believe they can’t do high intensity, often have confused the term “intensity” with “impact”, the same as I did.

Let’s talk about what these terms mean.

Intensity, Impact & Interval Training

Intensity – Typically categorized as high, moderate or low, a.k.a work, intensity refers to the level of difficulty, power and/or cardiorespiratory response (heart rate) produced by a physical activity:

Impact – Typically categorized as high or low, the force exerted on your body and joints, during physical activity.

Interval Training – Alternating short periods of work with recovery, usually for several rounds.

Active Rest – a.k.a recovery is the period following work where the heart rate can decrease and muscles clear energy byproducts.

HIIT – High Intensity Interval Training, work is performed at high intensity, recovery at lower intensity, typically utilizes a lower rest to work ratio.


High vs Low Impact

High impact movements are a great way to exercise, assuming your body can handle the forces. High impacts (forces) can also increase risk of injury, inflammation, joint damage, greater than normal post-workout pain and require longer recovery periods. If you fit any of the following categories, avoiding high impact may be the best way to go, at least until your body has developed the necessary range of motion, flexibility, strength and joint stability to handle the forces. For example, you:

  • have arthritis or certain types of joint replacements and some bone diseases
  • are significantly overweight
  • have balance problems, lack strength and coordination or are at risk of falling
  • are new to exercise or returning from injury or serious illness

High vs Low Intensity vs Progressive

Level of intensity depends on where you are in the health and fitness continuum. If you are already active with stable joints and balanced musculature, even if you are moderately overweight, higher intensity training should be possible. If you fit the below categories, it’s best to keep workout intensity low-to-moderate while you develop a baseline of endurance, strength and flexibility; after which, it may be possible to increase intensity. For example, if you are:

  • highly deconditioned, new to exercise or returning after a period of inactivity
  • with body instability or a fall risk
  • with certain chronic conditions, including Asthma, COPD, CAD, HBP

It’s always best to discuss your exercise plans with your medical provider and let your trainer know of medications and limitations. With proper management, many chronic conditions have been proven to benefit from HIIT.

There are many benefits to exercising at high intensity, assuming the body is ready. A body prepared for intensity, responds positively, increasing exercise tolerance. As strength and endurance improve, intensity can be increased. Progressive intensity training has proved to be highly effective at 6 Movements, where clients begin at low intensity and progress upwards, as they grow accustomed to the challenge and if they want this. Intensity is relative to each individual and we believe that the owner of the body should ultimately determine the level of intensity for any workout.

Age, Not Related

Age is not a criterion for choosing the level of impact or intensity of an exercise program. What matters is how active you are, overall health, the mileage on your body and the criteria described above. The more wear and tear a body has experienced, the greater the likelihood of arthritis or other limitations, especially with respect to impact. Most adults, including seniors, are capable of high intensity exercise. Those with healthy joints, of high impact.

Group Dynamics

It can be difficult to locate a low impact program that provides cardio. More common are high impact/high intensity programs like most Boot Camps, CrossFit, Orangetheory, etc. Beware of high intensity/high impact focused environments that claim they will modify for low impact. This often means you work out separate from the group or can be lured in to doing something you will regret. I almost earned a second knee replacement because I couldn’t hold back when everyone around me was pounding it out. Maybe you can avoid the influence. I couldn’t back then.

The Holy Grail

During my seven-year quest, I tried a wide variety of programs and methods, with mixed results. Sometimes I ended up worse off than when I started, other times it was like — Eureka, this really works! The eureka moments happened particularly with kettlebell training and indoor rowing. Both proved to be fun and high effective and can be conducted at any level of intensity. These, along with TRX and bodyweight exercises, are now the primary components of my fitness regimen, as well as being the core programs offered at 6 Movements.

Things really started working for me after I changed my focus to what I could do, instead of what I couldn’t. I have since spent my energy and time on seeking, developing and perfecting low impact training methods, that can be performed at high (or low) intensity.

For anyone, especially a boomer, living in a high mileage body, being able to do regular, high intensity interval training, without harming the joints, is like finding the Holy Grail.

I found my Holy Grail and I hope you will too.


Let’s Talk Fitness is sponsored by 6 Movements Fitness Studio, located in Firdale Village Shopping Plaza in Edmonds. Check out 6movements.com to learn more about low impact progressive intensity training options.

Know someone with or have your own fascinating fitness story or want to join the Let’s Talk Fitness conversation? Send topic proposals, stories, comments or questions to talkfitness@6movements.com.

— Sponsored by 6 Movements Fitness Studio

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