Is There a Difference Between Exercise and Physical Activity?


Physical activity can be defined as any movement of the body that requires energy expenditure. Exercise is a physical activity that is done to become stronger and healthier: a particular movement or series of movements done to become stronger and healthier: something that is done or practiced to develop a particular skill.

Understanding the Difference Between Physical Activity and Exercise

Most daily physical activity is considered light to moderate in intensity. There are certain health benefits that can only happen with more demanding physical activity. As an example, jogging or running provides greater cardiovascular benefit than walking at a slow pace. Additionally, enhanced fitness doesn’t just depend of what physical activity you do, it also depends on how vigorously and the length of time you continue the activity. That’s why it’s important to work out within your target heart rate range when doing cardio, to reach a certain level of intensity.

There is an easy way to tell if an activity is considered moderate or vigorous in intensity. If you can talk while doing the activity, it’s moderate. If you need to stop to catch your breath after saying just a few words, it’s vigorous. Depending on your fitness level, a game of doubles tennis would probably be moderate in intensity, while a singles game would be more vigorous. Likewise, ballroom dancing would be moderate, but aerobic dancing would be considered vigorous.  It’s not just your choice of activity, it’s how much exertion the activity requires.

Ideally, an exercise program should include elements designed to improve each of these components:

  • Cardio-respiratory endurance. Enhance your respiratory endurance by engaging in aerobic exercise such as brisk walking, jogging, running, cycling, swimming, jumping rope, rowing, or cross-country skiing.  As you achieve distance or intensity goals, reset them higher or switch to a different activity to keep challenging yourself.
  • Muscular strength and endurance. You can increase muscular strength most effectively by lifting weights, using either free weights like barbells and dumbbells or weight machines. Improve your endurance through activities such as conditioning exercises, weight training, running or swimming.
  • Flexibility.  Increase your level of flexibility through stretching exercises as a part of your workout or through programs like yoga or pilates that incorporates stretching.

While it’s possible to include all of these fitness components with an active lifestyle, an exercise program can help you achieve even greater health benefits.

Increasing the amount of physical activity in your everyday life is a good start. Doing things like parking a few blocks from your destination to get in some walking. But to really achieve fitness goals, you’ll want to incorporate structured, fast paced activities into your schedule to help you attain even more of your fitness and health goals.



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