Why Activity Isn’t The Same As Exercise

exercise Feb 13, 2017

There are some days that I literally want to rip my hair out because of what people count as exercise. Walter works from home and would go up and down the stairs three times in the day, counting that as his exercise. He also thought that walking at the grocery store and shoveling his four-foot-long sidewalk once a week was exercise. I couldn’t convince him otherwise. These things are NOT exercise. They are activities.


Activity is any physical movement of the body that uses up energy. Most people count their activities of daily living (ADL) as exercise. These ADL’s are the things you need to do in the day like cooking, laundry, housework or yard work and often involve going up and down the stairs a few times in the day. General activity can also include taking the stairs instead of the elevator or parking at the back of the parking lot so that you have to walk further.

Marina is a nurse on a busy unit. She works 12-hour shifts and is up and down the unit all day. Her job is very physical and she’s often turning patients or helping transfer them in and out of bed. Despite being very active in her job, Marina is overweight and can’t seem to get lose the unwanted pounds. The problem is that her body has already adapted to that current level of activity and she is no longer getting additional benefit from it. In order to see further improvements in her health, Marina will either need to do more activity or exercise or address the other pillars of her health.

Some people get out of breath while performing activities (eg. walking up stairs) but in most cases that comes from being de-conditioned or out of shape, rather than it being a difficult task. While I believe that we should all work to keep our activity level higher, we don’t get the same health benefits from activity as we do from exercise.

Activity should be performed on a daily basis to keep active and reduce the loss of function. Too often I see this in seniors that stop being active, their bodies just waste away. Keep your body moving, it’s truly a case of use it or lose it. Be as active as your situation allows you to be. Maybe you just had surgery and need to take some time to recover at home. Working out might just push you over the edge and make your recovery take longer. Start introducing activity into your day gradually, as you tolerate it. Overall I encourage you to try and be active in some way every day.


Exercise is an activity that is planned, structured and repeatable. The goal of exercise is to maintain or increase your current level of fitness. It’s also to prevent the natural declines that happen with age. From the ripe old age of thirty, it’s all downhill. Ok, perhaps I’m being a bit dramatic! We do, however, have a natural decline in muscle mass and bone mass starting around age 30. This decline starts out slowly and increases as we get older, generally accelerating around 50 years of age. The rate of decline is slightly different for everyone and usually happens earlier for women than men due to the hormonal changes during menopause. This decline in muscle mass and bone density can largely be reduced or prevented by engaging in exercise that helps to maintain strength as we age.

Unlike activity, exercise gets your heart rate up for longer periods of time and gives the added benefit of building muscle mass and or bone density. Exercise also helps you to maintain better posture, alignment or ergonomics, allowing you to move your body as it was intended to move, rather than coming up with awkward movement compensation that often leads to injury.

Exercise is done over and over again to provide a repeatable stressor on the body, which in turn leads to a strengthening of the system. If you only walk up and down your stairs six times in the day (activity), it may be spaced too far apart to get the desired benefit. Some activities push into the exercise category such as digging a trench in your yard, shoveling gravel or moving a load of heavy boxes. These activities involve moving a load repeatedly for an extended time.

I’d also like to draw some special attention to rehabilitation from an injury or illness. Activity or exercise that’s done when someone is healthy is completely different from when they are recovering and trying to rehabilitate after a period of weakness or immobility. Activities that used to be mundane or easy may become intense exercises after an injury. In some conditions like Lupus or Multiple Sclerosis, there is a delicate balance between exercising to build or maintain strength and overdoing things. Use discretion when participating in exercise programs and make sure you get a balance of rest to receive the benefit from all your hard work.


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