» Physical Activity vs Exercise

Physical Activity vs Exercise

We all know that moving our bodies and burning calories is good for us.  From cardiovascular benefits, to decreasing the chances of becoming diabetic or obese, to even reducing stress and improving our microbiome and gut, movement is vital to our all-around health.

But what is the difference between what we know as physical activity and exercise?

Physical activity, as you may expect, encompasses a broad array of actions, such as work tasks, house chores, and games. A national public health report defined physical activity as any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that results in energy expenditure.

Think, for example, when your boss tells you to head to the fourth floor to pick up an expense report and you take the stairs. That counts as physical activity. Other key elements of physical activity are energy expenditure varies from low to high, and it is positively correlated with physical fitness.

Exercise is a subset of physical activity that is more structured. Like physical activity, exercise is any bodily movement of skeletal muscles that results in varying energy expenditure. It is also positively correlated with physical fitness, but to a stronger degree than physical activity. A major difference between the two is exercise must be planned, structured, and repetitive, with the goal of improving or maintaining physical fitness. For instance, running away from your kid in a game of “Tag” is considered physical activity, while running 100 yards three times back-to-back for time is considered exercise.

If physical activity and exercise are two different things, which is more important? The answer is both. It is important to incorporate physical activity (unplanned) and exercise (planned) into your daily life. The American Heart Association recommends that adults ages 18-64 get between 150 and 300 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week.

They also recommend at least 75 minutes of strenuous physical activity per week, which can be included in the 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity activity. Thus, if you plan to exercise for 75 minutes in one week, you should be physically active for at least another 75 minutes of that week to meet the minimum recommendations.

To get enough exercise, you need to plan approximately 25 minutes of an aerobic workout three times per week. This builds cardiorespiratory health, muscular endurance, and aerobic strength. It can also decrease the risk of depression, improve bone health, and boost physical fitness. A key feature of exercise is a sustained elevated heart rate lasting greater than 10 minutes. You can also choose to exercise more intensely for less time and make similar significant gains in physical fitness.

The other 75-150 minutes can be spent doing moderate exercise or even physical activity, which equals 15-30 minutes per day, five days per week. This can be a sport like golf, walking in a mall, and using the stairs instead of the elevator. Over time, this will build muscular strength, maintain cardiovascular health, and promote healthy blood glucose levels.

Both exercise and physical activity involve getting the body moving, despite their subtle differences. In order to keep your body healthy and happy, incorporate both into your daily life. Ask your Physical Therapist about how to get more exercise and physical activity today!


1. Caspersen CJ, Powell KE, Christenson GM. Physical activity, exercise, and physical fitness: definitions and distinctions for health-related research. Public Health Rep. 1985;100(2):126-131.
2 American Heart Associations Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults and Kids. Updated April 18th, 2018. doi: https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/fitness/fitness-basics/aha-recs-for-physical-activity-in-adults.

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