What Is the Difference Between Physical Activity and Exercise?

Man resting after getting physical activity vs. exercis

While many use the terms “physical activity” and “exercise” interchangeably in casual conversation, there is an important distinction between the two when it comes to our health. Understanding the key differences between physical activity vs. exercise not only allows you to communicate accurately with medical professionals. It also aids in building physical routines tailored to improving your cardiovascular health.

At Cardiovascular Institute of the South (CIS), we understand the importance of both physical activity and exercise for heart health. Learn how physical activity and exercise are defined by health experts, explore the types of activities that fall under each category, and discover the cardiovascular benefits you can gain from incorporating both into your lifestyle.

Defining Physical Activity vs. Exercise

The World Health Organization defines physical activity as any muscular movement, even during rest, that requires the use of energy. This also refers to any activity that moves your body and burns calories. Adults over 18 should get at least 75-150 minutes of vigorous aerobic physical activity each week. In addition, adults should incorporate at least two days of muscle-strengthening activities into their routine.

Replacing sedentary behavior with simple physical activity such as gardening, taking the stairs, or using a standing desk when working can:

  • Improve bone health
  • Reduce the risk of disease and depression
  • Strengthen muscles and the cardiorespiratory system
  • Help maintain a healthy body weight

While defined as a category of physical activity, exercise requires a more structured and planned approach. Exercise is physical activity done with purpose and repetition to maintain physical health or reach a health goal. Cardiovascular exercise, for example, 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. Regular exercise can include participating in a sport, doing daily yoga, or swimming laps in a pool.

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Why Is a Combination of the Two Important to Heart Health?

Physical activity and exercise play crucial roles in promoting heart health and contribute to overall well-being in distinct ways. Physical activity contributes to the overall health of the cardiovascular system by promoting general movement and preventing sedentary behaviors. Exercise, on the other hand, provides targeted benefits by improving specific aspects of heart health, such as fitness, cholesterol levels, and stress management.

Benefits of Physical Activity

  • Daily Energy Expenditure: Regular physical activity helps maintain a healthy weight by burning calories and preventing weight gain. This is essential for heart health as obesity is a risk factor for heart disease.
  • Blood Circulation: Physical activity stimulates blood circulation, ensuring the heart pumps blood efficiently to all parts of the body. Improved circulation reduces the risk of blood clots and cardiovascular diseases.
  • Blood Pressure Regulation: Engaging in moderate physical activities helps regulate blood pressure. It prevents hypertension, which is a significant risk factor for heart-related issues.
  • Metabolic Health: Physical activity contributes to better glucose metabolism and insulin sensitivity, reducing the risk of diabetes. Diabetes is associated with an increased risk of heart disease.

Benefits of Exercise

  • Cardiorespiratory Fitness: Exercise, particularly aerobic exercises like jogging or swimming, enhances cardiorespiratory fitness. This means the heart and lungs work more efficiently, improving endurance and reducing the workload on the heart.
  • Cholesterol Levels: Regular exercise helps raise high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol) and lowers low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol), reducing the risk of plaque buildup in arteries.
  • Heart Muscle Strength: Exercise strengthens the heart muscle, making it more efficient in pumping blood. This reduces the risk of heart failure and other cardiovascular diseases.
  • Stress Reduction: Physical activity, especially exercise, releases endorphins, which can reduce stress and anxiety. Chronic stress is linked to heart disease, so stress management is crucial for heart health.

Research shows significant evidence that all physical activity contributes to overall health and well-being and that exercise improves physical fitness. Rather than choosing just physical activity vs. exercise, combining both brings the greatest impact on our health.

Heal & Strengthen Your Heart With Intensive Cardiac Rehab

If you have experienced a cardiac event and are weighing the benefits of physical activity vs. exercise, combine the two seamlessly with CIS’s Intensive Cardiac Rehab in Lafayette. Our exercise physiologists can help patients fully reap these benefits by providing detailed exercise instructions that are safe, effective, and tailored to your individual needs. 

In this three- to four-month program, our health professionals will work with you to design a personalized plan to create lasting lifestyle changes. This includes:

  • Managing stress and depression with a personal health coach
  • Learning how to modify your nutrition with a registered dietician
  • And building a heart-healthy fitness regimen alongside our exercise physiologists

To learn if you qualify for our program, start by consulting with your cardiologist for a physician referral. You can also call 337-735-8500 with any questions about Intensive Cardiac Rehab. Take back control of your life while improving your cardiovascular health.


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CIS Staff

Written by CIS Staff