Physical Activity vs. Working Out

I don’t mean to get hung up on semantics here but the term physical activity should not be mistaken for exercise.  They aren’t the same thing.  Well, not exactly.  Physical activity is defined by the World Health Organization as “any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that requires energy expenditure”.  Based on this definition, it pretty much means moving your body around and not sitting or lying still.  It doesn’t have to be done at a certain intensity or for a set amount of time.  Just get up and move and you are being physically active.

Exercise, on the other hand, is a subcategory of physical activity.  It is planned, structured, repetitive, and purposeful.  The goal of exercise is to improve, or at least maintain, one or more components of physical fitness.

So, physical activity includes exercise as well as any other activities that are done as part of a typical day – or at least should be done as part of a typical day.  Unfortunately, in today’s society, most of us aren’t getting much of any type of activity.  We have worked “moving around” right out of our day. Things like playing, active transportation (walking/biking), jobs that require movement, and even household chores are becoming less and less physically demanding. In the end, we have all but worked physical activity right out of our lives.   

I want to make this clarification between exercise and physical activity for a couple of reasons.  The first is because I have witnessed many people make the mistake of putting in 30 minutes of structured exercise (sometimes more, sometimes less)  and then feeling as though they have a free pass to lounge around for the remaining 23 ½ hours of the day.  Now, don’t get me wrong, structured exercise is necessary and for anyone who is able to meet the physical activity guidelines, they should be proud.  However, I want to issue this warning that physical activity is a very important part of your day, beyond just structured exercise.  We are built to move, not sit, and even 40 minutes of high intensity exercise doesn’t give us a 4 hour ticket to the couch.

My second reason for bringing up this difference is because “exercise” can be scary or intimidating, and for some – not very enjoyable. It’s those people that I especially like to encourage to focus on getting more physical activity in by discovering recreational activities or hobbies. Doing this can serve many purposes and support general well-being by meeting needs that are beyond just physical.  Through recreational based physical activities, we can support our social, mental, and environmental needs. They can challenge us to develop new skills and allow us a means for meeting and engaging with others.  Basic physical activity can also replace sedentary time, and most importantly, relieve stress while adding some fun into our lives!  

There are so many hobbies and activities that are movement based.  Some are certainly less intense and competitive than others.  The list can include simple things like walking, cycling, golf, tennis, paddle boarding, camping, gardening….there are too many to name here.  Most, if not all of them, make us move more AND get outside! Another bonus is – they can be done with friends and family.

Don’t forget that by adding more movement into your life, it can deliver a litany of personal health benefits.  So, don’t sell physical activity short just because your heart rate might not be through the roof as it would if you were at a gym or in a fitness class. It can reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, colon and breast cancer, and depression. Adequate levels of recreational physical activity can also decrease the risk of a hip or back fracture and help control weight.

So for those who may not be ready for structured or intense exercise, this could be a great starting point.  Even those who are exercising, reducing  sedentary time is still a good idea.  You might actually have some fun and discover something you love. Building physical activity into the day by exploring a recreational hobby is something anyone can benefit from.

Check out these resources for ideas to help you, a family member, or friend get started:

Print off 50 Family Friendly Ideas to Recreate and Move More pdf

Here are some online resources:



Leave a Reply