Physical activity and exercise: Are they the same, and why does it matter?

Separating ‘physical activity’ and ‘exercise’ - just a case of splitting hairs? These two terms are often used interchangeably, even in research. Actually, there are some pretty important differences, and consequences for these differences.

Strictly speaking, we define physical activity as “any bodily movement that increases energy expenditure”; whereas exercise is “a structured activity that is done repeatedly, and usually with a specific objective such as improved fitness” (Bouchard, Blair, & Haskell, 2012). As such, exercise is a type of physical activity. Physical activity takes in a wider range of activities, from sport, dance, walking, and cycling to work.

The World Health Organisation offers specific guidelines for physical activity. They go a little something like this:

• People should do 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week. ‘Moderate’ means getting slightly out of breath or having a raised heart rate. This equates to roughly 30 minutes of activity a day. Light jogs, swimming, or even (brisk) walking should do the trick.
• Or, people can do 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity per week. 'Vigorous' would include dynamic sports that raise the heart and breathing rates. For example, football, netball, or badminton.
• Or, combine moderate and vigorous activity. One day go for a brisk walk, another day play a sport.

These guidelines also state that physical activity bouts should last at least 10 minutes. Yet, there's more and more evidence that lesser amounts of time are just as beneficial. If nothing else, smaller bouts break up long periods of sedentary behaviour (e.g., sitting).

How easy is that to fit in?! If you drive to work, park a 15-minute (brisk) walk away. Doing that return journey five times a week and congratulations, you’ve hit the guidelines. Have stairs at work? Run up them a few times. Got an old skipping rope lying around? Both of these would be classed as vigorous.

Disclaimer: If you do have a heart conditions or similar ailments, then consult your doctor or physician before you start leaping around.

And how about these for alternative forms of physical activity:

•    Hula hooping – moderate to vigorous

•    Juggling – moderate

•    Trampolining – vigorous

•    Slack-lining – moderate (don’t know what slacklining is? Check it out here)

•    Dancing – moderate to vigorous

Most people wouldn't describe these as ‘exercise’. But, they are all very good for health if done regularly. Plus, there's the added bonus of mastering a new skill. This has a whole host of other benefits, including increased motivation (a topic we'll cover in future posts).

One great thing about physical activity is that there are opportunities to do it everywhere, and in short periods of time. On the other hand, exercise is likely to be more structured and regimented. Go to a class, for example, and it’s likely to last at least 30 minutes. That’s much harder to fit into a daily schedule than going for a brisk 10-minute walk.

Another thing - you don’t need to settle for exercises that you find boring. For sure, there are certain times we should do specific exercises. For example, for post-injury rehabilitation, sports performance, or to improve our posture. In my own life, I actually spend as little time doing gym exercises as possible. There are some focused exercises I do that help me perform better at the things I enjoy doing. I strengthen my legs for football or running, or work on strengthening my core for posture. But for the most part, keep moving by doing things you actually enjoy and find interesting. You’re much more likely to stick at it.

So, when you’re trying to become healthier, look for opportunities to move. Don’t restrict yourself to regimented exercise sessions. You don't need to put hours into the gym, or pound the streets at some ridiculous hour in the morning.

The key thing is - keep moving. The next time a friend asks you to go and do something active, just do it. And don’t stress if you don’t find the time for exercise, just find a few minutes in your day for physical activity.

Not all physical activity needs to be done in the gym...

Not all physical activity needs to be done in the gym...