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Exercise vs. Activity

Experiences like these make staying fit worth the trouble.

Not the same thing.

This might be obvious to some. But to many, any sort of activity is ‘getting your exercise’. Much of the confusion within the world of fitness comes from a lack of clear definitions. In this post, I hope to clearly define what I mean when I say ‘activity’ and ‘exercise’.

So without further delay:

Activity: The  quality or state of being active; a pursuit in which a person is active.

From http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/activity, which I find to be sufficient for our purposes. It’s not a specific definition, because it includes so much (and not just physical): walking, jogging, playing sports casually, even vigorously, and on and on. You’re grandmother is active when she is knitting. You are being active when you walk to work, as well as when you are exercising.

Exercise: A specific activity that serves the purpose of enhancing some sort of functional capacity.

Note: All exercise is some sort of activity, but not all activity is exercise.


Mental activity: reading a book. Mental exercise: studying a book.
Mental activity: solving a math problem. Mental exercise: doing progressively harder math problems with the purpose of getting better at them.
Physical activity: jogging. Physical exercise: jogging almost as long as you can (endurance exercise).
Physical activity: dancing. Physical exercise: drilling a dance move over and over to make it better (conditioning exercise).
Physical activity: gardening. Physical exercise: resistance training (strengthening exercise).

Starting to see the difference?

I’d also like to point out that people who are very active, especially those who are involved in a sport or dance, are probably getting some good exercise without even realizing it. But if you just stay at the same level for a while, it starts to become activity, instead of exercise. You have to be trying to get better.

So why is this important?

People often think they don’t need to exercise because they are already active, usually because they have a physically demanding job of some sort. But haven’t you seen a construction worker with a pot-belly? Simply being active does not always make you fit.

Another example from my own work: I was once helping a client who clearly had a long-standing chronic degenerative injury that started with a car accident. They were getting pain with even the slightest movement. This person also worked in a busy work environment that was clearly perpetuating the condition. Unfortunately, they felt they couldn’t afford to take time off work, which I had stressed as the most important thing to try first. After trying to treat it passively, I suggested we try some exercise. They responded: “exercise?! but I exercise all day at work!”.

This is a common misunderstanding. I wanted to try graded, progressive, therapeutic exercise. Certainly not the same thing as the activity they were constantly doing at work. And if this was ‘exercise’ at work, then 8 hours a day, 5 days a week is pretty excessive! This person should have had better endurance than Lance Armstrong! But what they were doing was not exercise.

Activity is important too!

Now, I’m not knocking activity. Staying active still has a ton of health benefits, which I will make a post about later. It’s important to be physically fit, but also important to remain physically active. That’s why people can be at a higher risk of health problems when they have a job where they sit most of the day, even if they exercise!

The Bottom Line:

-Not all activity is ‘exercise’. Think about that.

-Just because you exercise, doesn’t mean you can just sit around for the rest of the day. And just because you are active, doesn’t mean you never have to exercise.

-Every week, exercise at least a couple of times. But also try to stay active in between workouts, and take frequent standing and moving breaks if you have a desk job.

Hope you found this article clear and informative!


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