What is the Difference Between Physical Activity and Exercise?

By: Annie Simoneaux, CIS Exercise PhysiologistAnnie Simoneaux

During this pandemic, we all have a little extra time. One of the ways we can utilize this time is doing things that will help increase our physical and mental health. One of the best ways to improve our physical health is exercise. Exercise can improve the health of our heart and lungs, our ability to remember things, reduce our risk for chronic diseases, and provide countless other benefits. However, there are many misconceptions when it comes to getting daily exercise. A lot of people will commonly mistake physical activity for exercise. But, what is the difference you may ask?

Exercise vs. Physical Activity

According to the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association the following are definitions of physical activity, exercise, and cardiovascular exercise respectively:

  • Physical activity is any movement that is carried out by the muscles that require energy. In other words, it is any movement a person does.
  • Exercise is, by definition, planned, structured, repetitive and intentional movement. Exercise is also intended to improve or maintain physical fitness.
  • Cardiovascular exercise, by definition, is any exercise that challenges the heart and vascular systems to increase the heart’s ability to pump blood and distribute oxygen to the tissues of the body.

The key thing to focus on when trying to determine if something is just physical activity or exercise is to ask ourselves a few questions:

  • “Am I doing this because I’m trying to improve my physical fitness or health?”
  • “Do I plan to do this consistently from week to week or even day to day?”

If the answer to both or one of these questions is no, then the activity probably cannot be considered exercise, and is truly physical activity. While if you answered yes to both, then it is most likely considered it exercise.

Combining Physical Activity and Exercise

In our daily lives, we do a lot of physical activity like walking in the grocery store and pushing the cart, gardening, and carrying the laundry basket to the washer. These are common examples, while some examples for exercising are intentionally going for a walk every day, doing a group workout, or even walking your dog.

Senior woman stretching her arms on white backgroundResearch shows significant evidence that all physical activity contributes to overall health and wellbeing, and that exercise assists with the improvement of physical fitness. While doing only one of these can be beneficial, the combination of both brings the greatest impact on our health.

While there are a great number of physical and mental benefits of exercise and physical activity, perhaps the most impactful is the strengthening of the cardiovascular system. Exercise physiologists such as those at Intensive Cardiac Rehab at Cardiovascular Institute of the South can help patients fully reap these benefits by providing detailed exercise instructions that are safe, effective, and based on your individual needs. Click here to learn more about Intensive Cardiac Rehab at Cardiovascular Institute of the South.


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CIS Staff

Written by CIS Staff