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Physical Activity vs. Exercise When Starting a Fitness Program

Dr. Mike Esco has a Ph.D. in exercise physiology and has over 20 years of experience in the health and fitness industry.

Just Move

One of the biggest problems many people face when starting a physical activity program is that they simply don’t know where to begin or what to do. One reason for this, at least in my opinion, is that there are many misconceptions about what physical activity truly is. Often times when someone thinks of becoming more physically active, images of treadmills, stationary bikes, or weights come to mind. However, there is a lot more to being physically active than typical exercise. And there are a variety of activities that you can choose from…WAY more than you may realize. In fact, you do not even have to “exercise” to be physical active.

A person exercises to reach a specific fitness goal. For example, if you want to run a marathon, then yes, you will have to exercise (run) several days per week to prepare your body for enduring the 26.2 mile distance. If your intention is to increase your 1-repetition maximum on the bench press, then you will have to strength train. If you’d like to have a symmetrical display of lean muscle for the beach, then you will have to do a combination of weightlifting and cardio exercises. Now, I certainly want to encourage exercise. After all, I have a Ph.D in exercise physiology and have been exercising most of my life. However, I recognize that many people have no intentions or desires of doing typical types of exercise, especially considering the “lack of time”.

Physical activity, however, is defined as any bodily movement that results in a higher amount of calories expended compared to rest. While this definition includes typical exercise, it also includes just about anything that involves body movement. Walking, climbing stairs, swimming, mowing the yard with a push mower, raking the leaves, gardening, biking around the neighborhood with the family, hiking, canoeing, playing an active sport like tennis or basketball for fun, playing chase with the kids…anything that involves moving your body. If your goal is to have a general level of good physical health, then your body doesn’t really care what activity you do, just as long as you do something. Moving your body will condition your heart, burn calories, decrease the risk of chronic diseases, and dramatically improve your overall level of physical health, just like “typical” exercise.

As a matter of fact, a number of research studies show the importance of general physical activity for improving overall health and fitness. For example, research published in the Journal of American Medical Association followed two groups of previously sedentary people over a 2 year period. One group performed a typical structured exercise program; 5 days per week of cardiovascular exercise at a certain percentage of maximal heart rate for 20 to 60 minutes each session. The other group was simply told to accumulate at least 30 minutes of moderate-intense physical activity on most days of the week. At the end of the study, both groups EQUALLY improved their aerobic fitness, blood pressure, and body composition. The authors concluded that “In previously sedentary healthy adults, a lifestyle physical activity intervention is just as effective as a structured exercise program in improving physical activity, cardiorespiratory [aerobic] fitness, and blood pressure” (Dunn et al., 1999). A follow-up study by the same investigators showed that physical activity is much less costly compared to exercise. The exercise group spent about 3 times more money per month (with gym memberships, etc.) compared to the physical activity group (Sevick et al., 2000).

Anytime I am asked a question like which exercise or activity is most effective, my answer is always the same…”the one you’ll do”. It is very important that you pick enjoyable activities. If it is enjoyable then you will be more likely to stick with it. You do not have to worry about which activity is better than the other, unless you are planning to reach a specific exercise related goal. For overall general health, moving your body is most important. Focusing mainly on the overall enjoyment will open your eyes to all the different varieties of activities. Whether you are in a gym, outdoors, at home, or at the office, the main focus should be placed toward becoming more physically active overall and decreasing the time spent sitting (or being sedentary). Again, the point is…MOVE YOUR BODY!!!

Physical Activity


How Much Activity Is Enough?

This answer really depends on your current level of physical activity and fitness, as well as your primary goals. If you are just starting out, becoming physically active takes much less time than what you might think. The general guidelines of physical activity from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) states that every adult should accumulate at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity per week. That comes out to approximately 22 minutes of moderate intense or 11 minutes of vigorous intense physical activity each day. Not bad, huh? That is about how long it may take to drive to work and much less than watching a television show. Now, certainly the more active you are the fitter you will become (up to a certain point - don't overdo it). But, if you are currently a sedentary person, making an initial goal of being active for at least 20 to 30 minutes per day is a good idea.

No Time for Physical Activity? Seriously??

Did you know:

• The average American adult watches 5 hours of television per day.

• College students spend 8 to 10 hours per day using their smart phones.

• Children are spending 7 hours a day in front of some sort of screen.

No time?? Accumulate

What’s more? You don’t need to get it all at once! You can accumulate 30 minutes (or longer) by being physically active in small increments throughout the day. Small bouts of activity during the day add up. It is a good idea to wear a physical activity tracker and accumulate at least 10,000 steps per day.

What do you do when you have an extra 10 minutes? Maybe you can spend that time being physically active.

For example:

  • Get up 10-20 minutes earlier than you are used to and go for a walk, light jog, bike ride, or something similar. This will jump start your day in a positive manner.
  • Then, after lunch go for a brief walk with a group of co-workers around the office or even in the parking lot. Or if you are a stay at home parent, take the baby for a 10 minute stroll.
  • Later in the evening after dinner, go for a walk or bike ride around the neighborhood with your family or friends. Play basketball in the driveway. Or game of “tag” in the yard with your young children.
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By doing small bouts of activity, you will accumulate the desired duration of daily physical activity. In fact, accumulating short bouts of activity can be just as effective as one long bout for improving your level of fitness. Research studies have compared groups of individuals who were active over a continuous duration like 30 minutes to groups of people who accumulate the same amount of activity in several small bouts though a day. There has been no difference for improving aerobic fitness, lowering cardiovascular disease risk, or losing weight between long, continuous versus accumulating short bouts of activity (Jakicic et al., 1995; Sykes, 2004). Now I must point out that this research is typically performed in sedentary individuals whose goals are to achieve a general amount of health and fitness. They are not competitive athletes or fit people, who definitely require a more focused exercise program.


If you are like many people struggling to find the time to dedicate to improving your physical fitness, you might try focusing on being more physically active in general and accumulate doing small bouts of different activities throughout the day.


Health effects of media on children and adolescents.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Mike Esco


Patty Florence from Illinois on August 28, 2017:

Oh yes, you did mention that. Thanks!

Mike Esco (author) from Alabama on August 26, 2017:

Hi Patty. Thank you for the comment. That's a great question. Physical activity becomes very important as we age. The more active we are, the better chance we have to fight off many age-associated diseases and illnesses. And I completely understand how difficult it is to be active while working full time. Not to mention life's other obligations that consume time. As the article states, accumulating small bouts of activity during the day can be helpful for "finding the time". However, whether you want to do continuous exercise, accumulate small bouts of activity, or both, I suggest creating a reasonable schedule that you can stick to. I also recommend making a list of 5, 10, or more activities and/or exercises that you enjoy and are able to do. You can put the list up someplace where you see it often, as a reminder.

Patty Florence from Illinois on August 26, 2017:

Nice read, but what about older individuals who have to work and want to keep fit?

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