High-impact vs low-impact workout trade-off

Let’s trade off a decision.  
  • Should I choose a high-impact workout like running, martial arts, or CrossFit?
  • Should I choose a low-impact workout like yoga, weight training, or swimming?
Two sides of scale showing high-impact workout versus low-impact
What’s the difference between high-impact and low-impact?
  • no impact is when no-feet leave the ground (swimming)
  • low impact is when one-foot leaves the ground (walking)
  • high impact is when two-feet leave the ground (running, jumping)
I’d add high-impact includes high force that’s absorbed by your joints, ligaments, and tendons no matter how many feet are on the ground like muscle-ups, punching, and kicking.  If your body takes a beating over time, it’s high-impact.
Which is better: high-impact or low-impact?  ……it’s complicated.  Why is it always complicated?  Because your values are different than my values.  I can’t answer whether high-impact or low-impact is better because I’ll accept trade-offs that you won’t and you’ll accept different trade-offs that I won’t.  Below are three of many considerations that might impact our choices.
  1. What’s your body type?  If you’re overweight, the stress on your body from high-impact activities is greater.
  2. What’s your fitness level?  If your cardio, strength, and flexibility are excellent, you absorb high impacts better.
  3. What’s your goal?  If you want to look like a superhero, high-impact workouts speed up the process.  If you want to maximize health long-term, low-impact workouts reduce your risk of major injury.

There are no solutions, only trade-offs. Thomas Sowell

How to trade-off exercise choices mindfully

With all this complexity, how can we decide our exercise plan with a better picture of the trade-offs?  When we start a new workout, we only want to consider the benefits.  That’s natural, but pausing to consider the full picture puts you in a better position to protect yourself against the risks before they wreak havoc on your long-term health.  Use the steps below to mindfully choose your exercise program and mitigate potential issues.
  1. Recognize why you’re drawn to a workout type.
  2. Visualize the impact of that workout on your body over several years
  3. Decide whether to accept, mitigate, or reject the impacts
  4. Choose your health and fitness goals with trade-offs in mind

1. Recognize why you’re drawn to a workout type

Most of us focus on improving health for one of three reasons (source).
  1. We want to feel good.
  2. We want to be happier.
  3. We want to look good.
What motivates you?
  • Do you crave that peak workout “high” that feels so good?  
  • Does the shared pain of an intense group workout make you happy?  
  • Do you like having more time and energy for other activities?  
  • Do you love the way you look after hard training?
  • Do you like socializing with a group?  
You may gravitate to high-intensity workouts solo or with a group or low-intensity walking in a group or in nature.  Use these questions to find what drives you.  If it’s not one of these factors ask yourself what’s common about the workouts types you choose (group vs solo, high-intensity vs low-intensity, structured class vs freeform sport, etc) and why you exercise (feel good, be happy, look good, etc).
This is a judgment-free post.  You like what you like.  If you don’t like what you visualize as consequences of your exercise program choice in the next step, it’s easier to adjust tactics when you’ve clearly identified what drives you.  Keep filling that drive with any new choices.  

2. Visualize the long-term impact of that workout on your body 

Visualizing the impact of a new workout can be hard to do when you start.  Like the yellow section of the image below, you don’t know what you don’t know. Use these options to increase your awareness (the green and red in the image) so you can assess the consequences more accurately.
  • Watch the activity from a distance and imagine what issues you might experience over several years. 
  • Ask someone who’s done it for years what issues they’ve experienced.
  • Use the portal visualization technique below.
Venn diagram showing large section of "you don't know what you don't know" and smaller sections for "what you know" and "what you know you don't know"

Portal visualization technique

When I choose a new exercise program, I think of the program like a portal to my future which you can imagine with the stick figure walking through the door below.  The door is the exercise program.  Before choosing to walk through the door, I ask myself “How do I know what’s on the other side?”  I know I won’t get injured on day one.  That program would go out-of-business fast.  
Stickman walking through door with text "What happens after 3+ years of your workouts?" Strength, Cardio, Flexibility, INJURIES
A better question is: what happens if I perform that program day after day, every day for a year or a decade?  It’s hard to imagine a severe injury from walking or swimming every day.  It’s easy to imagine one Olympic lift or the wear-and-tear of thousands of high-impact movements causing a significant injury.  I can recover but injuries accumulate over a lifetime.  I don’t want to end up like the old-man marked with a red ‘X’ in the image below.  Each man in that image walked through several doors.  Would he stop to think about the trade-offs if he could do it over again?  I bet “70-yr old me” might choose workouts a little differently for “35-yr old me”.
Series of silhouette pictures of men from baby to an old man marked with an X

3. Decide whether to accept, mitigate, or reject the impacts

The purpose of the visualization isn’t to avoid activities that are more likely to cause issues over the long-term although that is one option.  Either way be mindful of the risks.  
  • If you accept the risks, at least you’re mentally prepared for the future consequences.  
  • If you reject the risks, choose a new exercise plan in the next step.  
  • If you mitigate the risks, start with the questions below.
How can you mitigate risks from your current exercise routine?  
  • Better technique?
  • More consistent form?
  • More recovery time?  
  • Better sleep or nutrition?
  • More stretching and mobility?  
  • Mix in low-impact workout days?

4. Choose your health and fitness goals with trade-offs in mind

With your motivation and long-term impacts clear, select your health and fitness goals with all the trade-offs considered including time, money, and variety.  Programs optimize for one or two of these attributes but not all three.  When calculating time include commuting, warm-up, recovery, learning new movements, and injury rehab since these factors differ significantly between programs.
Use these attributes to mindfully consider the long-term impacts and short-term drivers of your exercise plan.
  • Motivation: feel good, be happy, look good
  • Time: minutes to hours 
  • Money: free to expensive
  • Variety: low to high
  • Impact: low to high
Cross out (x) any attribute that’s not critical for you.  If you want to clarify your priorities, rank your list in order after that.  
If you find this too complicated, you’re likely trying to optimize for too many attributes.  It’s hard to find an exercise program that’s free, takes no time, has high variety, low body impact, and makes you look good, feel good and happy.  You have to choose what’s most important.  

My trade-off journey

As a teenager I had no concept of the long-term impacts of exercise.  So I got punched in the head.  A lot.  Martial arts training and CrossFit make me feel like a superhero.  Training for fights and coaching fighters gave me leadership, courage, and discipline.  The downside is the risk that all those punches cause brain damage or a lumpy noggin over the long-term.  
CrossFit is different.  I’ve knocked my head on a low pull-up bar a couple times, push-pressed a barbell into my jaw one-time, and snatched the bar into my nose just this morning, but generally I don’t get hit in the head very much.  However, olympic lifts, gymnastics, and high-volume movements put more stress on my joints than I care to absorb long-term.  To mitigate that risk I’ve reduced the frequency of CrossFit workouts and focus on technique and recovery.  I choose more low-impact activities like weight training, biking, and bodyweight exercise.  I get to be part superhero, part older-wiser?-fitness-geek hoping his knees, shoulders, and lower back can still squat when I’m ninety.  
My trade-off attributes look like this in priority order.
  • Motivation – be happy 
  • Time – an hour and change per day
  • Impact – mix of low and high
  • Motivation – feel good 
Money and variety aren’t major deciding factors for me so I removed them.  High-impact workouts make me happy and help me feel good so I’m keeping them.  I mitigate the downside risk of a few high-impact workouts per week with daily mobility work, recovering muscles completely after a hard workout, and plenty of sleep and good nutrition. 

Conclusion

Strategy is about making choices, trade-offs; it’s about deliberately choosing to be different. – Michael Porter
Trade-offs are frustrating to consider.  Who likes multi-variable processing?  Not many, but the rewards long-term are worth a little mental pain from analysis short-term.  Ask yourself: what would “70-yr-old me” want me to do?
Carpe Diem vs Carpe Futurum