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.

Surprising Gym Time-Wasters: 5 Killers of a Good Workout

Surprising Gym Time-Wasters: 5 Killers of a Good Workout

Designing an effective workout regimen isn’t always intuitive. Sometimes, seemingly logical tweaks to intensify a session can have the opposite effect. If you’re aiming to improve results, or simply want to be in and out of the gym in less time, experts say don’t waste a minute on these five things:

1. Time-waster: Spot training
It’s smart to hit the gym with specific goals. But zeroing in on a single body part or muscle group—called spot training—isn’t efficient. “The results are limited,” says Craig Ballantyne, strength and conditioning specialist and creator of the Turbulence Training Program, a workout guide for burning fat and building muscle quickly. Take crunches and sit-ups, for example. People often concentrate on these moves to trim and tone the midsection, but “you don’t need [to do] them to see your abs,” says Ballantyne: You need to lose body fat to reveal that six pack  Same goes for bicep curls to beef up your biceps or calf-raises to tone your calves. Isolated exercises fall low on the fat-burning scale; even if they help you achieve muscle definition, you probably won’t notice results under the fat.

What to do instead: Total body resistance exercises that incorporate your target area. For example, push-ups and deadlifts to work your abs; they’ll simultaneously tone your core muscles (abdominal and back) and rev up your fat-burning results by adding bodyweight resistance, which you don’t use for crunches and sit-ups. Bonus: Your arms and legs get a workout too.

2. Time-waster: Doing too many reps
When it comes to strength training, you don’t get points for how long you spend in the weight room—it’s the size of your load that counts. Whether you’re working your upper body, lower body, or core, using adequate weight will improve your fat-burning and strength results, says Jessica Matthews, exercise physiologist and certified personal trainer for the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit resource for fitness professionals and consumers. If you’re cranking out sets of 20, 30, or 50 reps, it’s a sure sign that you’re not lifting enough weight to see significant results, she says.

What to do instead: Choose a load that puts you in the rep range of 8 to 15 for general muscle conditioning and 6 to 12 if you’re going for muscle hypertrophy (bulking up). If you get to rep 12 or 15 and could keep going, that’s your cue to add weight, says Matthews.

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3. Time-waster: Five-minute rest periods
“Resting is an important part of strength training, but people often get sidetracked,” says Matthews. “Next thing you know, 10 or 15 minutes have passed.” Even a five minute rest is excessive (for the average exerciser), she says, and can actually hurt the quality of your workout by letting your muscles cool down between sets.

What to do instead: Limit rest periods to no more than 90 seconds, Matthews says. During that time you can do active recovery—low-intensity movement such as walking in place—to keep the blood moving and heart rate elevated while giving your muscles a break.

4. Time-waster: “Fat-burning zone” treadmill settings
The “fat-burning zone” is a low-intensity cardio setting on treadmills and other machines. According to Matthews, the feature became popular about 15 years ago, when research suggested the body primarily uses fat, as opposed to carbs or protein, to fuel lower-intensity exercise. But, she says, the findings were completely misconstrued: “Your body does use primarily fat at that level, but the more intensity, the more calories (and fat) you burn,” she says. Maximizing fat-burning is as simple as maximizing intensity.

What to do instead: Ignore the “fat-burning” treadmill presets and up the intensity of your workout by adding intervals of increased speed or resistance.

5. Time-waster: Splitting cardio and resistance
Forget 45-minute blocks of cardio and strength training; if you’re pressed for time, you can get the benefits of both with interval training, which can be done in as little as 30 minutes. Ballantyne says interval workouts—such as total body circuits, a key component of his Turbulence Training program—are just as effective for building muscle and burning fat as doing separate cardio and resistance workouts.

What to do instead: Follow a total body circuit-training routine like Ballantyne’s: String together six strength training exercises, alternating upper body and lower body with short rests in between. This segment is followed by 15 reps of squats, pushups, lunges (each leg) and mountain climbers (each leg). No rest is required because you’re switching muscle groups constantly, so your workout involves less clock-eating downtime. The rapid succession of exercises also keeps your heart-rate up, especially when interspersed with quick bursts of cardio like jumping jacks.

Zumba is another great interval workout; this high-energy dance routine combines cardio with squats, lunges, kicks and other total-body resistance moves.

The caveat to hyper-efficiency at the gym
While you can get a well-rounded, results-packed workout in just 30 minutes, more physical activity may be necessary for optimum health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week. If you spend less time than that at the gym each week, be sure to schedule additional ways to stay active.