Now, more than ever it’s important to keep moving. Stuck indoors is not much fun but neither are the problems that are going to arise from remaining sedentary for long periods. Besides home fitness is fun.
I’ve been looking at the best low impact cardio machines that’ll improve fitness without straining knees, hips, other joints or even the wallet.
There was a time when I was overweight. It wasn’t by much, maybe 10-15 pounds, but it was about the same time when my knees & hips started giving me pain.
Clearly, excess weight is a real issue when it comes to weight-bearing joints. I couldn’t run or jog for lengthy periods, but I managed to lose weight through low impact cardio exercise and improve my cardio fitness.
Why Low Impact Cardio Machines?
Aging or age-related aches and pains or more serious conditions can impact the level at which we want to train. Suffering from a touch of arthritis may feel like a great excuse to laze around and do no exercise at all.
There are many different types of cardio machines available though and their designs can meet the needs of most people’s level of fitness.
With any niggling persistent pain, you have to take stock and make sure that you don’t make things worse by overuse but complete inactivity of an affected area is not usually advisable.
Isolating the ache or pain so that there is no movement at all for the knee or ankle or back or whatever may well make things work by weakening the related muscles.
Any doubt about “what and how much” please visit a medical professional for advice. The Harvard Health Publishing site makes it clear “limiting your movements can weaken muscles, compounding joint trouble, and affect your posture, setting off a cascade of further problems“.
When you have joint issues, you have to be careful about overdoing it but… “the right set of exercises can be a long-lasting way to tame ankle, knee, hip, or shoulder pain. Practiced regularly, joint pain relief workouts might permit you to postpone — or even avoid — surgery on a problem joint that has been worsening for years by strengthening key supportive muscles and restoring flexibility“.
Apart from anything else, any serious damage that forces minimal efforts will have a demotivating effect on the long term fitness or weight loss plan.
When it comes to cardio machine exercise and joint issues, there are two real options—low impact machines and machines that can be adjusted for a lesser impact.
Over the following sections, we’ll address a combination of these two, to give the best possible choices for good cardio workouts.
Remember, if you are suffering from severe joint issues, especially if you frequently feel pain, speak to a medical professional. A doctor can not only diagnose the problem, but they can also give you advice on exercises you can do to alleviate the issue.
We’re going to start with a cardio machine that was designed to be very low impact. If you’re unaware, an elliptical, also known as a cross-trainer, is a machine designed to simulate the action of walking, running, or climbing upstairs.
These actions are achieved without putting the pressure on your knees as you would if you walked or ran normally.
For more on compact ellipticals choices.
Elliptical machine benefits
While it often isn’t as simple as ‘running will destroy your knees,’ over the years, it undoubtedly is stressful for them. Also, if you have arthritis, running will make it worse. Injuries can also be agitated by running.
That’s why the elliptical was considered a savior to injured athletes when it was released in the 1990s.
The machine does have real advantages.
It provides both an upper and lower body workout, as it has handles that you can use simultaneously with the pedals. These are pumped backward and forward as you move your feet back and forward but diametrically.
In some designs, the feet and therefore legs are forced in a circular motion. I hate these. They feel clunky and less rhythmical although I’m sure they still provide a good cardio workout.
The rhythmic quality of a good elliptical exercise machine makes it a comfortable way to get fitter at home.
If you don’t want to use the moving arm handles, there are central handles to use. The oversized pedals, more like buckets, also help improve your balance.
Apart from the most basic machine, the elliptical or cross-trainer will have a form of resistance to test you. That resistance becomes part of inbuilt programs that give some variation to the workout.
Although it might look a bit daunting at first, once you get on and start slowly there is a very good secure feeling about the elliptical especially as it is self-driven with no motor.
This means there is less to go wrong and should mean a more durable machine. More than those with motors and other complicated moving parts.
Elliptical machine drawbacks
The elliptical isn’t perfect, however. If you’re like me and love running and want the benefits of doing so, the elliptical isn’t replicating running exactly.
It’s similar, but you won’t get the same muscle activation that you would with running or jogging. So as low impact cardio machines go, where you want to get as close to running as possible, without the travails of the outdoors, the treadmill would obviously be your first choice.
Like any fitness cardio machine, the elliptical is limited in the fixed movement of its actions. Apart from the legs and arms go back and forward whilst they’re anchored by the feet in pedals there is little other variety of movement.
You should also consider that if you suffer from tendon issues, such as patellar tendinitis, an elliptical workout may need to be executed gently, at first anyway. If you suffer from this, take a look below at some other low impact machines.
It’s a big machine and can be pricey.
Elliptical machines summary
If you can’t run because the pounding of your feet on any surface is causing pain or concerns with the joints, then an elliptical exercise machine is a fantastic alternative and maybe the closest you can get to a no impact machine.
I used to think this came a poor second to the treadmill for getting a run-like workout or any intensive cardio but I’ve changed my mind over the years. It can offer a very good cardio workout and secondary activates a large number of muscle groups.
When I started scaling back my running because of mainly ankle and hip pain I turned to the elliptical in the gym to burn off the energy and it was really useful.
I managed to keep the weight off, stay fit and not only did my joints stabilize but I’m sure they’ve got better – I’m not going to test them with long-distance running though.
You can go hard on the elliptical machine although running (outdoors) can be really tough.
There’s a reason I’ve placed this machine right at the top of my list—it really is the king of cardio machines for people with joint pain and can no longer run like they used to.
Not buying it? Find walking or running boring? Read on for more choices.
Indoor Exercise Bike / Recumbent Exercise Bike
I’m giving you two for the price of one here, two variations of the same machine. An exercise bike, or stationary bike, is pretty self-explanatory—it’s an upright machine with a “bike-shaped design” that mimics a cycling action without actually getting anywhere.
The recumbent bikes are less common on the road but have a bigger place in a gym or at home.
Your sitting lower than a regular exercise bike with your bum parallel to the floor and you push the pedals away and back unlike the up and down motion of an upright bike.
On a recumbent bike, the seat has a backrest, and the pedals are placed forwards. This means you get total back support.
We’ve reviewed some home indoor rowing machines.
There is another type of indoor bike exercise and that is the cycle trainer which is a frame that bolts onto an existing traditional outdoor bicycle and the drive wheel sits on rollers.
This is great for more elite cyclists wanting to train indoors on their familiar bike set-ups. A lot of fun for us casual cyclists too.
Indoor exercise bike benefits
Cycling outdoors is generally a good form of exercise for the joints. It’s naturally more low impact than some other cardio exercises like running and you may be able to do it even with underlying but mild injuries.
However, good bikes are expensive, the exercise is weather-dependent, you may not even be able to ride a traditional bike.
Indoor bikes normally come with pre-programmed or custom workouts allowing you to tailor the workouts to the rider’s ability and increase the intensity as you get fitter.
These days with the right technology you can up the fun and therefore motivation with immersive apps that create a virtual landscape for your endeavors and group classes to follow along to with online coaching.
Spin bikes are normally associated with these applications and many now like Peleton and Zwift are subscription based. They are commonly used at home alone or in group classes inside or out.
If you do have more difficulties exercising and find a regular exercise bike hard going, there is another option—a recumbent exercise bike. It has to be said that there are those that prefer the recumbent action anyway.
I personally don’t, as to get the same momentum as cycling in the upright position your upper legs are going to be doing practically all the work. Whereas that extra effort in a standard position is shared around the upper body. And you can stand up which I like doing too.
The proper seat of the recumbent with its backrest makes the cycling experience a whole lot more comfortable – it’s a proper seat so you can banish memories of butt ache from those hard narrow leather strips.
The seating arrangement with backrest and sometimes armrests provide good support if you have any back problems.
Recumbent exercise bikes also help your knees even more than the upright version—the machine is taking your full weight, rather than your legs and knees.
Again, handy for those less able to get around, the recumbent bike is open, meaning you mount the machine just as you would a seat and it is heavy enough to be stable to hang on to.
It’s the most convenient machine you can get in terms of keeping the stress on your body to a minimum.
More on home exercise bikes here.
Not Too Many Downsides To An Indoor Exercise Bike
If you have mild knee or hip issues but feel capable of cycling, get a regular exercise bike. If your problems are more severe and your knees really can’t take more than minimum pressure, get a recumbent bike.
Exercise bikes in summary
So, if you want an indoor machine, an exercise bike is a great option. You’re not putting a ton of weight on your knees, and, unlike an outdoor bike, you have intensity settings to ease the struggle. Go low intensity for even less pressure.
The recumbent is on average a larger fitness machine than the upright bike which can have a very small footprint so space might be a consideration.
Rowing is a natural rhythmic motion and is very low impact with little stress on the joints.
The indoor rower is one of my favorite cardio machines. Once you get over the feeling of having your feet trapped it’s fun. In fact, make sure your feet are nicely secure for the most efficient action.
Want more on home indoor rowing machines
I steered away from it for ages thinking it might be bad for the back but done properly it shouldn’t be a problem unless there are underlying issues. Although, as always speak to your medical professional if you are unsure.
Proper form is important. Keep the back straight, open your chest and activate your abdominal muscles. To avoid the possibility of lower back pain, use some strengthening measures to firm up those abs and take it easy at first.
In fact, don’t go over around 30 strokes a minute and use the power in the body to go faster. Check this vid out.
If you’re looking for the best in indoor rowing machines the Concept2 is lauded by many experts as the number one choice for everyone from Olympic athletes to individuals at home. You see one of their models in gyms all around the country. The US company has been around since 1976 and the machines are still made in Vermont. Hurrah!
Rowing machine benefits
Cardio fitness can be improved comfortably with an indoor rower as it’s such a low impact activity and, bonus, you’re sitting down.
Using a rower can be good for joints in that they don’t put too much pressure on the knees—if your form is correct—rather, it’s working the muscles around the knees making it ideal for recovery after surgery.
It’s very much a muscle-driven machine, working the large muscle groups hamstrings, glutes, mid to upper back, biceps, shoulders and abdominals. This really can be a great full-body workout.
There are some pretty funky machines out in the market these days. They can actually enhance a living space looking like a piece of sculpture. Take a look at this one which uses water instead of air as resistance. They seem to be getting popular.
I haven’t used a “water” rowing machine yet so I can’t give an opinion of it in action. They do look cool though and prices are coming down. Above is a rower by GOROWINGO and is cheaper other than quality rowing machines.
Rowing machine drawbacks
Whether you can use a rowing machine will highly depend upon the joint issues you have, some can be improved by rowing, others made worse. With more serious knee problems the elliptical might be a better choice.
Indoor rowers aren’t as bulky as treadmills, for instance, but they can still require a sizeable footprint. A garage gym or room would be ideal of course.
Noise too can be a concern. It’s either the whooshing of air or the pee-inducing sound of rushing water. The better quality rowers have low levels of noise, however.
Rowing machines summary
The most important thing to achieve on a rowing machine is proper form. See above for how to properly use a rowing machine.
When you use a home version, you may not know if you’re doing it exactly right so start off slow and get those abs strengthened. This might be a bit much…
…it was for me anyway but you get the idea.
If you’ve got the go-ahead from your doctor to use this machine, go for it, you’ll truly feel the benefits of an all over, low impact cardio workout.
The stair machine is also known as a stair climber, stair stepper, step mill, Jacob’s ladder and lastly Stairmaster which has become a proprietary eponym. Okay, I had to look that word up. A brand name that has become synonymous with the item, in this case, the stair machine.
The stair climber, as its name suggests, is a mini set of stairs that revolve with a static handrail. It’s just the same as walking up stairs.
When the intensity is adjusted, the stairs become easier or more difficult to push down with your body weight.
Stair machine benefits
If you’re given the go-ahead to use this machine, you will vastly improve your experience with the correct form and footwear. In fact, not wearing the right shoes for any exercise can cause issues to your knees. So be sure to shop around for the correct footwear before doing any activity.
Stair climbing is a very low impact activity as you raise your feet and place them.
The stair machine is also great for toning the lower body—especially the thighs and glutes. If those are the areas you really want to work on, the stair machine is a good choice.
This is what they look like. This is a step mill from Stairmaster. It’s very expensive and takes up a lot of room. It’s really good if you’re training for the Empire State Building Run Up. Something I’ll do one day – I hope.
The speed of stair machines can be increased by lessening the resistance giving a HIIT if necessary. There are a number of other variations you can make like taking 2 stairs at a time, doing half squats, etc.
Stair machine drawbacks
Slouching or incorrect posture on the stair machine can also cause back pain. You’re sure to have been told at some point in your life to walk and stand with your back straight—so do the same on the stair machine.
The stair machine is good for toning the lower body—especially the thighs and glutes. There is some activation of the ab muscles too but otherwise, the machine is a bit limiting.
I’m not a great fan myself. It’s quite a large investment in terms of money but especially space although some versions of the stair master, climber, stepper or whatever, are designed on a different model.
Take the Sunny Health mini-stepper with resistance bands that attempt to target similar muscle groups as larger model versions with the neat addition of a workout for the upper body as well. I like it. We haven’t ran this machine through it’s paces but it looks a great idea for the price and minimal space used.
Stair machines summary
Like the rowing machine, how this affects your joint issues will depend on what the problem is. If you suffer from osteoarthritis, you really could benefit from strengthening your knees, and stair climbing does help with this. You should avoid it if you suffer from hip pain or hip bursitis or at least check with the doctor.
If your pain is chronic, you have a degenerative condition, or you’re unsure, consult a professional. However, like the other machines we’ve reviewed above it provides a very low impact activity that in the end improves bone cell production and be a benefit to bone density as it naturally declines as we age.
Here’s a controversial one—surely, a treadmill can’t possibly be good for your knees and hips? It’s running, and running on a hard surface of all things! Well, sort of, hear me out.
First of all, treadmills provide a lower impact experience than running outside. Also, and here’s a critical point, you don’t actually have to run on a treadmill.
Why not take that speed right down and walk? Keep your intensity steady, the speed down, and take a brisk walk on your treadmill—the machine keeps the terrain even, and you’re totally in control of the situation.
The better treadmills are made with give and a spring in the belt to reduce the pounding effect you get from running outside.
We’ve written a guide and reviewed some of the best treadmills for us older folk.
This makes them ideal for runners who want to train after injury or who wish to get their weekly miles up without the high impact of running outdoors all the time.
They are secure with long handles that enclose the runner/walker although for a more effective workout it’s best to only use them when getting on and off and as a last resort.
I remember running on one in a gym once and I had got too far back on the belt (was getting bored) and someone clipped my heels. I grabbed the handles, thankfully, to avoid head-butting the belt.
As it’s a runner or walking machine which will mean good posture, you’re free to watch a favorite box set.
Treadmills aren’t the perfect machine for joint concerns, particularly knees, and if your condition is severe, you absolutely should be careful. If your joint issues are milder, you’re rehabilitating after injury, or a professional has said you can—a treadmill doesn’t have to be off the table.
Running or walking inside can, frankly, be boring.
Treadmill machines are big (although some fold up) and can be pricey and walking outside is low impact activity so I prefer to get outside especially if it’s a lovely day.
The belt of a treadmill is softer than the ground, and you can find machines with more padding to lessen the shock even more. You should also look for treadmills that are longer and wider—so you have plenty of space to accommodate your natural stride.
Other low impact cardio equipment
Outside of the mainstream cardio machines, there are smaller gadgets and low impact equipment you can use to help you get active, get fit and stay healthy without impacting the joints.
Free weights are a great choice for a multitude of reasons. Most importantly, you get a whole range of motion and can adjust your routine around how you’re able to move.
Using light weights and more repetitive actions you can get a good cardio workout.
Resistance bands are a robust option for increasing your flexibility. I mentioned previously how flexibility is important for strong joints, and joints can also recover better through these types of exercises.
Resistance bands help provide, well, resistance to your stretching workout, making it more of a challenge.
I’ve just recently become a fan of resistance bands. The original ones I used, snapped which could have been, shall we say, chafing. That put me off for a while but the latest ones designed differently (and better) and I think they’re a bit of a secret solution for doing many different fitness activities.
Admittedly they come under the strengthening and resistance training area more than cardio but, again, doing low force and many reps, using resistance bands makes for a good source of cardio. Sounds like a diet!
Utilizing any of these tools and any one or more cardio machines will certainly help you get fitter and healthier faster.
I hope this article helps in choosing a low impact cardio machine if indeed that’s what you were looking for. One that will be as forgiving on knees, hips and ankles as possible.
I know that I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again—always consult a medical professional before starting any exercise regime especially if there are existing joint pain or injury.
The repetitive hinging at the base of the back that occurs with rowing machines may aggravate a back condition. Although it may strengthen the smaller muscle groups and become a restorative exercise.
If you have a degenerative knee condition, the stair machine maybe just a step too far – had to do it. “Knowing your body” is helpful when you climb onto that cardio machine, low impact or not.
Don’t forget—you can also do other cardio exercises to strengthen your joints alongside using these machines. Flexibility exercises will especially help when getting fit through cardio activities.
Let us know if you have any favorite low impact cardio machines or you wanted to hear about a particular fitness machine we haven’t included.