• I encourage people to get regular physical activity and more exercise. While some people may think that is the same thing, really there is a difference between physical activity and exercise.

    All exercise is physical activity, but not all physical activity is exercise.

    This is similar to the idea that all thumbs are fingers, but not all fingers are thumbs.

    So, what is the difference and why does this matter?

    Physical Activity

    Physical activity is the movement of the body that requires energy. If you got up from your bed today and got dressed, congratulations you have engaged in physical activity. If you are reading this from bed still (good morning), I would assume you haven’t done physical activity yet today.  Or, maybe you did.

    There are different types of physical activity including household, occupational, leisure-time, and transportation.

    Some of this activity we take for granted and don’t really think about.

    Household physical activity would be house cleaning or yard work, carrying the groceries in the house, etc. While many of these household tasks are almost impossible to avoid, outsourcing even in these areas is becoming common.

    Occupational physical activity is related to someone’s work. For example, hospital staff may be walking throughout the hospital, carrying things or people, or cleaning. Someone who stocks shelves is engaging in physical activity. The person who loads the delivery trucks is engaging in occupational physical activity. Some jobs have very little physical activity and others have a lot.

    Walking around the grocery store is a form of physical activity, but not exercise.

    I climb the stairs in my house each day. I walk from my car to the store and walk around the store, sometimes pushing a cart, sometimes not. Walking from the car to the office or for various errands are forms of transportation physical activity. In some cities there are bike share programs and using this would also be transportation physical activity.

    And then leisure time physical activity is the kind that tends to get ignored when the days get busy. This is the recreational activities such as soccer, hiking, biking and even going to the gym.

    Many things today have cut into our physical activity time. Remember in the “old days” of having to actually get up to change the television channel (though to see what was on the other three channels wasn’t a big motivator)? Or to open and close the garage door was an additional step in and out of the car?

    Many things have allowed us to significantly decrease our level of physical activity.

    Even today in the last several years, more things have allowed us to do LESS physical activity. We don’t even have to get out of the car to get a cup of coffee, leave our house to get a movie, or even go to a mall or other store to buy clothes.

    While this may be convenient – yes, it is – it has also decreased our overall level of physical activity.

    And, there will always be those who are physically able, but choose not to take the stairs to another floor even when it is only one or two floors away. Or those who choose to circle the parking lot for a closer parking space or will drive to the other end of the strip mall because the other store is “far” away.


    Exercise is a form of leisure-time physical activity. This is not related to occupational activity unless your occupation is being an athlete.

    In my work in worksite wellness at a large university, I had clients tell me that their exercise was “walking all over campus”. No, this was occupational physical activity – going from one building to another on the other side of campus. Not exercise.

    What is the difference? Exercise is planned, purposeful, and structured.

    Here is an example:

    Physical Activity: using a bike to get from one end of the National Mall near the Capitol Building to the Lincoln Memorial was an effort to get to various memorials in an efficient manner. That was transportation physical activity. And while there was a purpose – to see the memorials without having to walk – it was not planned, purposeful, and structured.

    Exercise: getting on a bike and seeing how quickly and efficiently I could get from one end of the National Mall to the other in an effort to get exercise, increase my heart rate and maybe improve on that time next round. It is still physical activity, but also exercise.

    The differences for many people are slight and not everyone will see or understand the difference between what exercise is and what is “just” physical activity.

    Another example is that my gym is about a mile from my house. Sometimes, when I am feeling really motivated, I will walk or jog to the gym from my house rather than drive. This is exercise.

    Even if you walk or run, doing it as planned, purposeful and structured, counts as exercise.

    Driving to the gym and walking in? Physical activity but not exercise. This is just referring to getting from my home to the gym and not what happens inside the gym.

    So back to the people who “walk all over campus”. If they are going from one building to another to get some work done? Physical activity. Taking the “long way” a la Family Circus – in order to get in more steps, more activity minutes and increase their heart rate? Exercise.

    The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans has specific recommendations for what we should be getting when it comes to this planned, purposeful and structured activity. I summarized it in this blog post, Breaking Down the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.

    But what is also mentioned in the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans is this:

    Only moderate and vigorous intensity activities count toward meeting your physical activity needs. With vigorous activities, you get similar health benefits in half the time it takes you with moderate ones. You can replace some or all of your moderate activity with vigorous activity. Although you are moving, light intensity activities do not increase your heart rate, so you should not count these towards meeting the physical activity recommendations. These activities include walking at a casual pace, such as while grocery shopping, and doing light household chores.”

    No matter where you are today and what you are, or are not, doing isn’t as important as stepping up your game and increasing your level of moderate and vigorous intensity activities.

    Track your overall activity for a few days what you are doing and see where you can make changes to increase your overall activity level.

    And, think about all those things that have allowed us to casually let physical activity decrease in the last 10, 20, 30 years.