Why the popularity of "low-impact exercise" continues to chap my ass

"Low-impact" does not actually mean "easy": The false promises of the yogas, barres, spinnings, golfs, and HIIT circuits of the world.

Why the popularity of "low-impact exercise" continues to chap my ass
Alex Shaw vis Unsplash.

The Question

Hi Casey! I love your writing and it’s been so helpful to me in my journey to having a better relationship with my body. I really appreciate you! But I confess that I do still also enjoy other types of workouts that you seem to hate—Pilates, yoga, even barre sometimes (I was a longtime barre freak, and I still mix it in from time to time). I respect your opinions of course, but I’m not sure I understand why you are SO down on them. I know a lot of people who love this stuff and wouldn’t work out at all without it! I get all the things that lifting offers that they don’t, but something seems like better than nothing. I’d love to convince more people to try strength training, but I guess I also don’t see what’s wrong with people doing what feels right to them, especially if they feel safer doing it? —I’m Sorry About My Barre

The Answer

Okay: I am duly aware that many think I am unfair to types of exercise other than lifting. It’s important for you to know that a lot of this is just me having some fun online. But more to the point, I don’t think any type of exercise is as persecuted as lifting; I’m the underdog here. This is me wanting to give the runners and Pilatians and barre-ites a taste of their own medicine. I’m nothing if not petty!

But if I had to boil down my resentments into a soundbite, it would go something like this: People default to this stuff, and shy away from more functional training, because good marketing and cultural forcing makes it all sound like the easy, safe types of exercise for the discerning girl/boy on the go.

I think this is fake. Low-impact exercise is not a magic “no injury” bullet. And packaging it that way sets a weird and bad precedent for how people understand their bodies and their relationship with working out and injury.

For one, a lot of this stuff isn’t THAT easy (and nor should it be, which we will get into). For another, it creates the expectation that having a body should be a seamless and virtually no-maintenance experience, and anything that doesn’t fit that mold is a personal failing. Strength training leaned the opposite way of both these elements, and that’s why I continue to find it so fascinating. (We will also get more into this in a bit.)

“Low-impact” does not equal “never, ever technical or difficult.”

“Low-impact” doesn’t mean easy. “Low-impact” only means that the pressure generated on your joints is relatively less than some other stuff. Pilates or HIIT circuits are low-impact; basketball, running, and lifting would be high-impact.

But as an example of what I mean, let’s take golf. Nothing is reputedly less intense than golf. The median age of golf players is, I would guess conservatively, one hundred years old.

Sure, golf is mainly walking and hitting a very tiny ball with a relatively tiny club. But it’s also, if done right, generating a high amount of force in a relatively short range of motion in a plane (transverse) that is rarely used in our day to day life. Golf players are torquing the entire body, including shoulders, torso, hips, wrists, down to our knees and ankles. And that’s if you’re doing it right. If you’re doing it wrong, it could be worse.

Because of golf’s reputation as a low-impact exercise, as this study notes, people are particularly unlikely to prepare for it in any way. They’re not going to eat to fuel it, they’re not going to warm up, and they’re sure as hell not going to cross-train in order to support their play. They’re going to walk up to the driving range or tee box and pick their rented driver out of their rented golf bag and whale their Titleist balls right into the rough (yes; I have watched Tin Cup many times) for 18 holes and five straight hours. Then they will wake up the next day with a lower back spasm and shake their fist at God, cursing their bad fortune. Per that study again, golf players do get hurt, with some regularity, and not just from driving their golf carts over a blind hill. It happens just from playing golf.