Exercise and Physical Activity: What’s the Difference?

Exercise and Physical Activity: What’s the Difference?

Learn the difference between physical activity and exercise, and how each can contribute to physical fitness.

Medically reviewed by Niya Jones
Physical activity is defined as movement that involves contraction of your muscles. Any of the activities we do throughout the day that involve movement — housework, gardening, walking, climbing stairs — are examples of physical activity.

Exercise is a specific form of physical activity — planned, purposeful physical activity performed with the intention of acquiring fitness or other health benefits, says David Bassett, Jr., PhD, a professor in the department of exercise, sport, and leisure studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Working out at a health club, swimming, cycling, running, and sports, like golf and tennis, are all forms of exercise.

Physical Activity and Exercise: Understanding the Difference

Most daily physical activity is considered light to moderate in intensity. There are certain health benefits that can only be accomplished with more strenuous physical activity, however. Improvement in cardiovascular fitness is one example. Jogging or running provides greater cardiovascular benefit than walking at a leisurely pace, for instance. Additionally, enhanced fitness doesn’t just depend of what physical activity you do, it also depends on how vigorously and for how long you continue the activity. That’s why it’s important to exercise within your target heart rate range when doing cardio, for example, to reach a certain level of intensity.

Physical Activity and Exercise: Understanding Intensity

How can you tell if an activity is considered moderate or vigorous in intensity? If you can talk while performing it, 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. Again, it’s not just your choice of activity, it’s how much exertion it requires.

Physical Activity and Exercise: Components of Physical Fitness

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

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

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

Increasing the amount of physical activity in your everyday life is a good start — 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, vigorous activities into your schedule to help you attain even more of your fitness and health goals.

Measuring Your Personal Fitness Level

Measuring Your Personal Fitness Level

Body shape, lifestyle, genes, and cardiovascular ability all help to shape your individual fitness factor.

Medically reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPHEvaluating your fitness level is not a one-size-fits-all process. Differences in lifestyle, muscle tissue, genetic makeup, and overall health all help determine your personal fitness level.”It is an individual measurement that is not always dependent on how much physical activity you do,” notes Jim Pivarnik, PhD, president of the American College of Sports Medicine and director of the Center for Physical Activity and Health at Michigan State University in East Lansing .So how can you tell if your exercise and healthy diet habits are paying off? There are several ways to measure your fitness level.

The Five Components of Fitness

“Measuring fitness is multi-dimensional,” explains Pivarnik. “Long-distance runners have excellent cardiovascular health, but if all you are is legs and lungs, you won’t have a lot of strength or flexibility. By the same measure, someone who is overweight and aerobically fit is healthier than someone who is in the normal weight range but doesn’t exercise.”

Overall physical fitness is said to consist of five different elements:

  1. Aerobic or cardiovascular endurance
  2. Muscular strength
  3. Muscular endurance
  4. Flexibility
  5. Body composition

Thorough fitness evaluations include exercises and activities that specifically measure your ability to participate in aerobic, or cardiovascular, exercise as well as your muscular strength, endurance, and joint flexibility. Special tools are also used to determine your body composition or percentage of total body fat.

Working to optimize each of these five components of fitness is crucial to enhancing your overall fitness and general health.

Fitness: How to Develop an Action Plan

If you have specific health problems, check with your doctor before implementing a routine to boost fitness. Once your doctor gives you the go-ahead, you have no more excuses. To improve your fitness level, take these important steps:

  • Follow U.S. guidelines for the minimum amount of exercise. That means exercising at a moderate intensity level for at least 2.5 hours spread over most days each week. At least twice a week, supplement aerobic exercise with weight-bearing activities that target all major muscles. Avoid inactivity; some exercise at any level of intensity is better than none while you’re building up your endurance.
  • Walking is the easiest way to get started. Get motivated by enlisting a friend to join you and adding variety to your routine. “Walking is simple and manageable for anyone,” says Jill Grimes, MD, a family physician in Austin, Texas. “Wear a pedometer from day one. Think of it in three parts: a five-minute warm-up of walking slowly, followed by a fast walk, then a five-minute cool-down of walking slowly.”
  • Compete only against yourself. No matter what activity you choose for getting fit, never compare your progress to someone else’s. “Do set goals, and if you are out of shape and hate exercise, start low and go slow,” recommends Dr. Grimes. “Do not compare yourself with your best friend who weighs 50 pounds less and just finished her 10th triathlon.” Pivarnik agrees: “Even if the same group of women walked at the same pace every morning, they would not all show the same fitness measures.”
  • Avoid overexertion. One preventive step Pivarnik suggests is checking your resting heart rate before getting out of bed every morning and making a chart so you can see a consistent, but gradual, decrease over time. If your resting heart rate begins to increase, you may be overdoing it. Another indicator of overexertion is muscle soreness that doesn’t go away after a couple days. “People generally err on the side of not pushing themselves enough,” says Pivarnik. “But the worst offenders are those who think they can jump in where they left off — the bunch of 40-year-old guys who think they are still on the high school football team and start running laps, but end up red in the face.”

As you work on improving your fitness, take it slow and steady to avoid injury or burnout. Above all, remember that consistency is key — if you keep at it, your hard work will pay off.