Forget burpees — this 5-move low-impact workout works your whole body in just 15 minutes

a photo of a woman doing a bodyweight squat
(Image credit: Getty/Oleg Breslavtsev)

When someone mentions cardio exercise, you probably imagine running, jumping rope, and burpees. While these are effective, they're not your only option if you want to move your body, raise your heart rate, and protect your joints. 

Sore knees can be a challenge if you want to keep active, but the key is to find low-impact exercises that don't put additional stress on your joints the way high-impact moves like running and jumping do, which is exactly what this short, five-move, no-equipment routine is designed to do. 

So, whether you're nursing a recent injury, dealing with problem joints, or looking for a new routine, roll out one of the best yoga mats and give this low-impact cardio workout a go. As always, check in with your medical team before attempting any new exercise routine. 

How to do the five-move low-impact cardio workout

The good news is you don't need any additional equipment for this low-impact cardio workout, just your mat and some space you can move. There are five moves, and it's structured as a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workout

This means you'll perform each of the following exercises for 30 seconds, with 10 seconds of rest between each exercise (feel free to take more time between exercises if needed, especially if you've just started working out regularly). 

After you've finished the last move, rest for 30 seconds, then start the first exercise again to repeat the circuit. Aim to repeat the routine four times for an effective, heart rate-raising, cardio-boosting workout in just 15 minutes. 

1. Squat floor tap with total body extension

The total body extension is the low-impact answer to the squat jump, an exercise that's in many cardio and HIIT programs. This will raise your heart rate and protect your knees for an effective cardio boost. 

  • Stand on your mat with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart.
  • Aim your hips behind you and bend your knees as though you were about to sit on a chair.
  • Reach your fingertips toward the floor, touching the mat if your range of motion allows.
  • Squeeze your glutes and stand tall, reaching your fingertips towards the ceiling.
  • Repeat at a moderate or fast pace.

2. Squat and jab

Ready to step into the ring? The squat and jab will leave you feeling like a boxer, without all the negative impacts on your joints.

  • Stand on your mat with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart.
  • Aim your hips behind you and bend your knees as if you were about to sit on a chair.
  • Squeeze your glutes and stand tall, punching your left arm out, parallel to the floor.
  • Aim your hips behind you and bend your knees again, coming to a squat position.
  • Squeeze your glutes and stand tall, punching your right arm out, parallel to the floor.
  • Continue alternating between the two sides at a moderate or fast pace.

3. No-jump jumping jacks

The jumping jack is a gym class classic for a good reason: it's a full-body exercise that can get the heart pumping. Jumping jacks can still have a place in your cardio routine, even if you need to be kind to your knees — you just have to omit the jump.  

  • Stand on your mat with your feet together and your arms by your sides. 
  • Step your right foot out to your right side, raising both arms above your head.
  • Return your right foot to the starting position, and lower your arms by your sides.
  • Step your left foot out to your left side, raising both arms above your head. 
  • Return your left foot to the starting position, and lower your arms by your sides.
  • Continue alternating between the two sides at a moderate or fast pace.

4. Reverse lunge to low kick

Lunges are technically a low-impact exercise, but if you have especially sore knees, injuries, or chronic pain, it's best to reduce your range of motion and modify the exercise so that you're stepping back behind you, rather than completing a full lunge. 

  • Stand on your mat with your feet about hip-width apart. 
  • Step your right foot behind you and slowly lower yourself towards the mat, bending your right and left knees. Keep your left heel on the mat and your left knee aligned over your left foot.
  • Stand tall, bring your right leg forward, and kick your right foot in front of you. Then, return to the starting position. 
  • Step your left foot behind you and lower yourself towards the mat, bending your left and right knees.
  • Stand tall, bring your left foot forward, and kick your left foot in front of you.
  • Continue alternating between the two sides at a moderate or fast pace.

5. Inchworm

Take all the jumping out of a burpee, and you've essentially got the inchworm. This low-impact movement will work your core (the muscles around your stomach that connect your upper and lower body) while also giving your hamstrings and lower back a good stretch. 

  • Stand at the edge of your mat with your feet about hip-width apart.
  • Roll down slowly through each vertebra, reaching your fingertips toward the floor while keeping your legs as straight as possible.
  • Place your hands on the ground and walk them towards the end of your mat.
  • Lower your hips until they're in line with your shoulders. Keep your spine neutral and your core engaged.
  • Walk your hands back toward your feet and roll back up through the spine until you're standing tall.
  • Repeat at a moderate pace.

What are the benefits of low-impact cardio exercise?

Cardiovascular exercise comes with many significant health benefits, including the prevention of heart disease, stroke, and several cancers, according to the World Health Organization.

Low-impact cardio exercise is also much easier on the joints, making it an appropriate choice for those suffering from injury, arthritis, or other chronic ailments. Plus, it's generally more accessible for beginners who are just getting used to a regular fitness routine. 

But just because it's low-impact, doesn't make it less effective than its high-impact counterparts. According to a study in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, low-impact cardio was found to improve aerobic fitness, lower blood pressure, and reduce cholesterol. 

How many times a week should you do low-impact cardio exercise?

The CDC recommends that all adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week, which many people choose to split into 30-minute chunks over five days. 

Since this five-move low-impact cardio workout will take around 15 minutes to complete, you can pair it with another style of low-impact exercise like walking or swimming to get a full 30 minutes of activity. 

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Jennifer Rizzuto

Jennifer Rizzuto is a freelance writer and certified personal trainer based in Long Island, NY. She covers various fitness-related topics and reviews for Tom's Guide. She also writes sketch comedy and short films, and performs frequently as an actor, singer, and improviser. When she's not writing, working out, or performing, you'll find her trying to convince her husband to get a dog.