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Physical Activity vs. Exercise

When I first started writing this blog, it was meant to describe a shift that has occurred in my career and life.  I have been a personal trainer and strength and conditioning coach for 15 years and have run a business for 12 years.  Last year I took a step back from in-person training to work abroad, consult for other companies, and run my business.  And then…a pandemic hit.  Now many of the SVPT trainers and clients are dealing with the exact same issue – going from being active all day to finding it difficult to get off the couch.

Before the pandemic, I would still see clients 3 days a week for a few hours when I was in town.  (I think it’s important to keep my tools sharp, be around my team, keep learning, and be IN the industry in the trenches.)  Despite that, I quickly noticed that I moved from being active all day on the gym floor to mostly working at a desk.  I have become the person we see all the time at the gym – the desk worker!  Now that the gym is temporarily closed due to COVID-19, my level of movement is even lower than before, and I am sure EVERYONE is dealing with an overall loss of movement and exercise because of fitness facility closures.

As a trainer I have always understood how bad sitting at a desk was for the body, but now I am LIVING it.   Even though I do more sitting now than ever, I still train 4-6 days a week. However, what I have now realized more than is that formal gym-based exercise is not enough on its own – it must be supplemented with simple ACTIVITY.

Currently many of us are stuck in our houses, either working from home at a makeshift desk, or homeschooling kids, or simply unable to work…and making good use of the Netflix subscription.  Life has simply changed, and for many people it hasn’t been for the better. Exercise and physical activity have become even harder to fit in, and motivation is at an all-time low.

The biggest eye opener for me was when I looked at my phone one day and saw how many steps I took over the week. I was mortified.  I exercised 1 hour a day, sat for 8-10 hours, and got in 1500 steps a day?  Our bodies simply are not designed for that.

(Disclaimer:  Yes, steps are not the only indicator of activity, but since I have my phone on me most of the time, it is a great measurement for ME of activity levels.  Sometimes measurement is necessary to shed light, even if it doesn’t necessarily show the whole picture.)

The realization was – the less movement you have in your daily life, the more you need to do to be fit and healthy (physically and mentally).  For example, if your day job is sitting for 8 hours, you need to fit in structured exercise AND general movement. The formal gym exercise is to work on specific qualities like strength or mobility, and the general activity spread throughout the day is to keep the body vital, energized, loose, and healthy. When we are sedentary, we stagnate and stiffen up. When we move, we have life and energy and actually feel human!

For those who have a job that keeps them moving all day – think construction laborers, childcare workers, retail associates – formal, gym-based exercise can take a more central role and be more targeted to specific goals. These folks are already getting plenty of unstructured physical activity throughout the day! For those in a more sedentary job, perhaps informal activity should be the main focus with structured exercise as the supplementary piece.

Confused yet?  Thought getting to the gym and working out was enough?  Don’t get me wrong…of course the exercise you are doing is GREAT!  But we also need activity outside of structured exercise.  And that doesn’t have to be complicated – it can be as simple as walking.

Let’s break down the difference.  Both exercise and general movement improve health, and both have benefits for the body and mind.  But the term “physical activity” should not be confused with “exercise”, which is a subcategory of physical activity.

What is exercise?

Exercise is any intentional bodily activity that enhances or maintains physical fitness and overall health and wellness. Exercise is targeted and specific to goals, and it has particular physiological effects. It is planned, structured, repetitive, and aims to improve or maintain one or more components of physical fitness.

What is physical activity?

Physical activity simply means movement of the body that uses energy, or BEING ACTIVE. Walking, household chores, gardening, pushing a baby stroller, climbing the stairs, recreational sports, or dancing the night away are all good examples of being active. Beyond exercise, any other physical activity that is done during leisure time, for transport to get to and from places, or as part of a person’s work, has a health benefit.

We as a population generally engage in very little physical activity.  We may exercise, but we aren’t as ACTIVE.  We exercise, then Netflix.  We exercise, then sit at a desk all day.  We exercise, then park as close as we can to where we are going, we drive everywhere, we take advantage of the EASY in life.  The phrase “active couch potatoes” has emerged to describe those of us who do structured exercise 30-60 minutes per day, yet remain sedentary the rest of the day. And let’s face it, we just don’t engage in the amount of movement that we did 50 years ago due to advances in technology (and sometimes just plain laziness!).

So what do you do?  Be more active or exercise more?   It depends.  If you exercise for an hour a day, add more activity.  If you are active all day, add some structured exercise to improve physical fitness.

For myself, I have set a personal goal of either taking a minimum of 10,000 steps per day OR engaging in some type of activity outside of structured exercise – a walk, a bike ride, or recreational sports. This is in addition to my scheduled exercise program 4-6 days per week. Now, this isn’t a strict plan. I know life will happen and some days I will not get in my activity, but at least I am now more aware of it.  When you know better, you do better.

So how can you be more ACTIVE in a day?  Well, it’s simple – move more, sit less.  Engage in life more

Park far away, or walk to the store
Take a walk in nature, or simply around the block
Play a game outside with your kid(s)
Join a recreation league sports team
Find a friend that wants to try new activities with you
Take the stairs every chance you get
Make lunch hour about movement
Plant a garden and keep it alive
Organize your house
Help a neighbor or friend or family member organize theirs
Get a dog
Sign up for a charity walk
Offer to help a senior with things they need done around their house
Dance, or take a dance class
Learn a new skill or sport

*Of course, due to physical and social distancing many of these are not possible now, but in the future you can definitely add these in. 

During this pandemic, there are many ways you can add activity into your day while you isolate, and you can do it with the people you are isolating alongside:

Take a 30-60 minute walk – away from everyone else – every day

(The benefits of simple walking have been proven over and over again)

Games with the kids

Clear some furniture and find a game that gets you moving
Get outside for games in the yard

Stairs – if you have stairs in your home, make the effort to go up and down them more than you usually do

Gardening and/or yard work (weather permitting)
Maybe it’s time to take down those Christmas decorations, clean up the yard, or plant the garden you have always wanted


Home Improvement
That room or basement that you have always wanted to organize or paint…….or the basement…..now is the time

Spring Clean
Go deep.

Personally, since adding in more activity, I simply feel better – physically and mentally.  I feel like I did when I was on my feet training people for 10 hours a day.  Also, t my daily COVID-19 physical distance walks and gym spring cleaning activity has been a huge help in managing stress.

Finally, during these stressful times………do what you can.  Do what feels good to you at the time.  Exercise and physical activity shouldn’t ADD stress, it should relieve it. Right now everyone is in survival mode and stress is high, and sometimes surviving doesn’t include squats. Sometimes it’s just a nice walk, scrubbing the shower or reading a book.

Stay healthy!

Shara Vigeant, BA, NSCA-CPT*D, CFSC

Owner, SVPT Fitness & Athletics