The human body is made to move, and physical activity is a requirement for lifelong health. But exercise-related injuries are a significant concern few people think about until it’s too late. Even a mild sprain can sideline an athlete for weeks, and a sports-related injury can be debilitating for an older adult. “I think a lot of people, especially those in their 20s and 30s, are interested in doing a lot of exercise but they’re not really thinking about injuries,” says Dr. Brian Werner, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist at the University of Virginia.
Running, for example, is among the most popular forms of exercise in America. But up to half of all runners are injured each year, according to a 2010 study in Current Sports Medicine Reports. “I’m a long-distance runner myself, but it’s a high-impact form of exercise and it’s not optimal for people trying to avoid getting hurt,” Werner says. Also, many runners tend to overdo it. When it comes to running’s longevity benefits, researchers have found that running two or three times per week at a slow or moderate pace is optimal.
Especially for those age 40 and older, exercises that place heavy amounts of stress on the knees, shoulders and other joints are going to come with a high risk of injury, Werner says. Examples he raises are basketball, soccer, tennis, or other sports that involve lots of jumping, twisting, or quick changes of direction.
That’s not to say these activities are unhealthy, or that people who enjoy them should give them up. A recent study in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings found that, compared to solo exercise pursuits, activities that involve spending time with others are associated with longer life expectancies. Studies have independently linked both exercise and social interaction with longer lifespans, so it makes sense that combining the two would be beneficial. But while healthy, many of these activities nonetheless carry a high risk for injury.
If a person’s goal is to minimize those risks while still getting all the health and longevity benefits of exercise, experts highlight walking and swimming as two low-risk, high-reward pursuits. “Unless you’re swimming competitively or for hours every day, it’s easy on the joints,” says Dr. Kyle Yost, a sports medicine specialist at the University of Maryland Medical Center. Swimming also combines aerobic exercise and resistance training, meaning it improves fitness and strength, he says.
Walking, meanwhile, is associated with both long life and a reduced risk for medical-related expenditures, according to a 2011 study in BMJ Open. A recent study found that brisk walking is especially healthy. “Walking is an outdoor activity that can include spending time with other people, and I think any exercise that combines those two things is going to be very healthy,” says Dr. James O’Keefe, a cardiologist and medical director of the Cardio Health & Wellness Center at Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute.
Yoga also garners some shout-outs as a low-risk, high-reward form of physical activity. “It has to be done correctly and with good supervision, especially when just starting out, but I think yoga offers a great combination of flexibility and strength training,” says Dr. Steven Struhl, an orthopedic surgeon at NYU Langone Health. Flexibility is a “neglected” component of proper health and fitness, he says. “It improves balance and reduces stiffness, which leads to strains or injury.”
For fitness enthusiasts who recoil at the idea of a life filled with long walks and yoga, there are ways to lower the injury risks associated with more intense, high-impact sports.
The first tip may induce some yawns. But experts say a moderate approach to any sport or workout is a good way to avoid getting hurt. “Overtraining leads to a lot of injuries,” says Yost. If you’re playing the same sport or doing the same type of exercise every day—and especially if you’re pushing yourself hard—you’re asking for trouble.
Taking it easy at the start and slowly working your way up to more intense workouts is another safety measure. “A lot of people start off too heavy or with too much volume,” O’Keefe says. If you’re intent on running a half-marathon, for example, sign up for next year’s—not this year’s—and try to mix in some other non-running forms of exercise (swimming, yoga) to build your strength and endurance.
Finally, don’t neglect your core. “You get your power from your core, and if it’s weak, you tend to overuse your arms or legs, which leads to injury,” Struhl says. Pilates classes can improve your core strength. So can gym machines that target your upper and lower back, obliques, and abdominal muscles, he says.
All that said, if you’re looking for safe, healthy activities that will lower your risks for injuries—as well as for disease and mortality—easy-on-your-body activities like walking, yoga and swimming are great options.