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Physical Activity vs Exercise: Round 1


Physical Activity vs Exercise: Round 1

Patrick Rahm

Start building stonewalls in your free time or take up body building?

Become a farmer or start training for marathons?

More generally, integrate more physical activity into your life or install an exercise program?

Aren't sure of the difference between these seemingly identical things?  Here's how some see it:

Physical activity : any and all movement

Exercise : movement that is done with the intent of improving one's health and / or fitness

So, exercise is only one kind of physical activity (PA).  The distinction is worthy to make because what's arguably more troublesome than not exercising, is the continual decrease in time spent doing all other kinds of PA.

Why this continual decrease in NON-exercise PA?  It's mostly due to technological advances (farm equipment, washing machines, cars, screens, etc) having built more sedentary time into our lives.

This decrease in NON-exercise PA has contributed greatly to global rises in obesity, heart disease, type II diabetes, osteoporosis, and depression.  These negative side effects of our modern conveniences paired (ironically) with our continually time-crunched lives have made exercising now more important than ever before.

Aside from the now more-than-ever importance of exercise, I still consistently find myself telling general fitness clients that BEFORE installing an exercise program they should FIRST maximize the amount of non-exercise PA in their lives.

When suggesting an increase in non-exercise PA as a means to improved health and / or body composition, not everyone takes it as seriously as I'd hope.  From what I gather, it seems as if many are more interested in grinding through a tough workout than they are in taking the stairs, climbing the escalator, or parking further away. 



So, perhaps there needs to be some more drum beating for NON-exercise PA.  Below are a few pieces of evidence that stress the importance and value of NON-exercise PA:

  • Those living in Blue Zones are reaching age 100 at 10 times the rate of and have 12 more years of life expectancy than the average American.  People living in these Blue Zones do very little to NO exercise.  Instead, they do a lot of regular, low to moderate intensity PA. If you're curious to learn what else they do:
  • Many Amish never integrated the aforementioned technological advances into their lives. Even with diets characterized to be high in saturated fats, refined sugars, and total calories, their obesity rates are relatively low.  In this observational study, obesity rates in an Amish community living and working in Ontario, Canada was ~ 4%.  This is paltry when compared to the ~ 30% obesity rate in the US.  Like those in the Blue Zones, they also do very little to NO exercise. 
                                                            May still be worth the time and effort

                                                            May still be worth the time and effort

  • This study attempted to test the value of more PA versus more exercise directly.  They compared a daily addition of six hours of simulated PA (four hours of walking and two hours of standing) to one hour of exercise (vigorous cycling).  Even with energy expenditure being held equal, the PA had a more beneficial effect on insulin sensitivity and blood lipid profiles than the exercise.  We should speculate on what effect an hour of a different type or combination of exercise (i.e. resistance training) would of had, but the point is that the value of PA is nothing to disregard. 
  • This meta-analysis was a rude awakening for those with sedentary jobs who had faith that their exercise program could keep them healthy.  It was concluded that independent of both PA and exercise, prolonged sedentary time was associated with a greater risk of all-cause mortality, and incidences of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes.
                                                                             Living on the edge

                                                                            Living on the edge

Thankfully, the data offered some salvation; higher levels (amount and intensity) of PA (including exercise) lessened the magnitude of the deleterious health outcomes associated with being sedentary. The take home message:

Decreasing sedentary time should be emphasized as much as increasing PA.

Or as one author noted, "It is not good enough to exercise 30 minutes a day and be sedentary for 23 and half hours." 

(Note: Apparently there wasn't enough data to recommend a minimum amount of sitting time.  At the moment, the message simply seems to be the less sitting the better.  But, from what I gather, sitting no more than 5-6 hours a day may be a worthwhile and realistic number to aim for.) 

The unfortunate truth for many is that there is only so much more PA they can build into their lives.  It is still a worthy fight to continue to fight but the "excuses" are real; our predominantly sedentary work and built environments are forcing even the best intentioned to move less. Thankfully, exercise (if done smartly) can make up for a lot of the loss ground...and then some. 

In Round 2, I'll point out a few advantages that exercise has over just doing more low to moderate intensity PA.  Curious to what these advantages are?  Try to identify the key word in the first sentence of the conclusion of this study.