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Suffer from knee or back pain? Try these 5 low-impact exercises

Exercise doesn’t have to be high impact to be effective. These movements get your heart rate up and tone your muscles without worsening the pain.
Bicycle crunches strengthen your core and get your heart rate up — without impacting sensitive joints like your knees.
Bicycle crunches strengthen your core and get your heart rate up — without impacting sensitive joints like your knees. TODAY Illustration / Getty Images

If you have chronic pain that prevents you from working out, you’re not alone. About 65 million adults in the United States recall a recent episode of back pain, and about 16 million experience consistent chronic back pain. Joint pain also affects millions of Americans every year, with about 24 million adults limited in the activities they can partake in because of arthritis.

Wherever your pain is, you may avoid exercise out of fear of exacerbating the issue. And while it’s true you should skip high-impact workouts, that doesn’t mean you should avoid exercising all together. In fact, the right kinds of movement can strengthen your core and help you shed extra weight — two things that can help reduce pain.

As a member of the back pain club myself, I know firsthand that it can be difficult to get moving when your body seems to be telling you no, but there are ways to work out without doing more harm. Low-impact exercises that are gentle on the joints include movements like walking, swimming, yoga and cycling. And don't think that low-impact exercises aren't as effective. You can obtain all the same benefits from these exercises — pain reduction, better heart health, increased flexibility and fat burn — while protecting your back and joints. Of course, always consult your doctor about starting any exercise regimen if you’re being treated for back pain.

Once you get the all clear, here are five safe, but effective, toning exercises to incorporate into your routine:

Low-impact jumping jacks

Jumping jacks are a simple way to get your heart rate up and a great exercise to warm up your body before a walk or run. But jumping can put stress on your joints that can exacerbate knee and ankle pain. Modified jumping jacks will allow you to burn calories and warm up the body without the heavy impact. Stand straight with your arms at your side. Move your right foot out to the side of your body while lifting your arms above your head. Bring the right leg back to start, and immediately bring the left foot out to the side of your body. Alternate back and forth, with no pause in between.

Bicycle crunches

This exercise works your abdominal muscles, helping to strengthen your core and tone your stomach, while also getting your heart rate up — without impacting sensitive joints like your knees. Lie flat on your back and extend your legs straight in front of you. Place your hands behind your head like you would for a crunch, with your elbows out to your sides. Lift your head and legs slightly off the mat before beginning the exercise. Bend and bring your right knee towards your left elbow, tightening your abdominals. Straighten your right leg while bringing your left knee to your right elbow. Continue to rotate between your left and right legs, making sure to keep your alternate leg straight and slightly off the mat.

Side shuffle

High knees, jumping jacks and running in place are all exercises commonly used in cardio workouts. But shuffling is a great substitute; the cardio exercise helps improve mobility and burn calories while reducing the impact on sensitive joints. Start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart in a half squat position. Lift your right foot and push off with your left to move your body to the right. Continue to shuffle in this direction for 10 steps, then switch directions.

Boat pose

This exercise works your core, helping you stay toned and burn calories, without putting stress on the low back like a plank can. (Adding Pilates moves like this to my routine made a tremendous difference in my back pain!) The key is to keep your abdominals pulled in tight throughout the entire exercise. Begin by sitting on a mat with your arms stretched straight in front of you. Slowly begin to raise your legs while keeping them straight until your body forms a V position. Try holding this position anywhere from 10 to 30 seconds. You will feel the burn in all the right places!

Strength training

Strength training tones your muscles while helping you burn calories, and it can also serve as cardiovascular fitness that doesn’t require any impact on your joints. You can use weights or resistance bands, or even use your own body as resistance with exercises like modified push ups against a wall, squats and arm circles. If you move quickly between strength training exercises without rest time, you will elevate your heart rate and get an added cardio workout as well.