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Physical Activity vs Exercise: Round 3


Physical Activity vs Exercise: Round 3

Patrick Rahm

In Round 1, I explained the value of physical activity (PA).

In Round 2, I acknowledged the couple advantages that exercise has over PA.

In Round 3, I'll explain why it's best to aim to do some combination of both.

First, a review:

  • Physical Activity (PA): any and all movement
    • Increasing one's PA (or decreasing the amount of time spent sitting) is a legitimate and worthy means to improve one's health.
  • Exercise: movement that is done with the intent of improving one's health and / or fitness
    • An exercise program can specifically improve one's fitness and do so in a manner where the stresses are distributed more appropriately over one's body.

As mentioned in Round 1, I often tell general fitness clients that BEFORE installing an exercise program they should FIRST maximize the amount of non-exercise PA in their lives.

By sharing this perspective, I hope to make the commitment to improving one's health seem a bit less overwhelming.  Rather than building one's life around exercise, I suggest they view it primarily as a supplement intended to complement one's chosen lifestyle. 

In addition to being practical, this perspective is accurate when considering the time commitment necessary to receive health benefits from exercise.

In the graph below, notice the relatively little amount of time that even an average competitive athlete spends exercising to improve their performance:

Average Athlete JPEG.jpg

Now, compare the average athlete's use of time to that of someone at the other extreme; someone who is mostly sedentary and doesn't exercise at all.  Unfortunately, this is how many of us with desk jobs and "too little time to exercise" spend our time: (Note: This is an example of someone who should first focus on getting more PA.)


Sticking with this focus on time, below are two healthier and more sustainable profiles that fall between the extremes of "sedentary" and "athlete". 

"Active" represents those with lives that permit A LOT of PA but don't exercise (mentioned in Round 1).  "Exerciser" represents those with jobs requiring more sedentary time but do their best to be active and attain the recommended amounts of exercise (~4-6 total hours a week) :


As you may have already deduced, most of us should be aiming to spend our time as either "active" or "exerciser".  But what if we want to strive for an ideal?  Should we be aiming for "active-exerciser"? :


Making the case that an "active" person should also install an exercise program isn't an easy one. This exclusively active person may indeed live a long, healthy life free of exercise.  However, there are a few instances in which they would do well to add just a bit.

As mentioned in Round 2, an "active" stone wall builder could install an exercise program to make them more resilient and productive.  What's important to acknowledge at this point is that this could be accomplished with as little as ~ 1.5 - 2 hours a week of exercise. 

Another instance would be to decelerate the inevitable decline in our physical capacities that comes with aging.  If an aged "active" person spends their days doing things that don't demand much of their strength and power (or endurance, mobility, balance, etc), their reserves of those components of fitness are going to diminish more quickly with time.

Again, with as little as ~1.5 - 2 total hours a week of exercise, an active person could maintain the adequate reserves of fitness necessary to prolong their years of moving around the world with ease; never being challenged by climbing a set of stairs, lifting a heavy box or carrying the groceries. 

                               CLIMB                                                 LIFT                                                  CARRY

                             CLIMB                                               LIFT                                                CARRY

I recognize that striving to always live as an "active-exerciser" isn't realistic. Reconsidering the five "profiles of time usage" shown above, it should be expected that we'll all spend some of our time in each. 

Recovering from an illness, studying for exams, or grinding through a work project will make you "sedentary". Training for a sport, trying to change the shape of your body, or rehabilitating from a serious injury may put you in the "athlete" profile.  However, because these states are temporary, it's likely best to aim for a lifetime average of "active-exerciser".

Now, how to go about doing this:

  1. Unless it interferes with recovery from an illness or injury, always strive to increase your PA. Fidget, stand, walk or run, take the stairs, walk up the escalator, park further away, etc. 
  2. Next, know that while PA may keep you healthy, don't expect it to keep you FIT enough to do most of the things that you may desire to do. This is where exercise; being a supplement to complement one's chosen lifestyle, comes in.
  3. Once you've determined your chosen lifestyle and / or what you intend by exercising, know that this should inform the details of YOUR exercise program.

The WHAT, WHEN, HOW, HOW MANY and HOW MUCH of the program should address the most relevant and / or complementary components of fitness. The program should also intend to bolster your body to better tolerate the stresses of your active lifestyle. Lastly, know that (for the large majority of us) if our levels of PA are adequate, exercise shouldn't require much of our time

Again, harnessing our bodies' incredible ability to adapt gives us ALL the potential to do awesome things. How each of us chooses to define awesome will vary between us and change within us over time. The choice is and will continue to be yours.

   Define your awesome