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What Counts As Exercise? (The Difference Between Exercise and Activity)

What Counts as Exercise (the difference between exercise and activity)

Working in the garden. Hiking in the mountains. Vacuuming your entire house. Taking a ride around the bike trail.

There are times when any of those things could count as exercise.

There are also times when, not only should those specific examples not be considered exercise, but other things — like your daily 5 mile run, or an hour lifting weights at the gym — don’t count either.

I’m talking about the difference between exercise and activity. Without this understanding, you may never reach your goals.

Beginner’s Luck

Have you ever had a sibling (or friend) who was terrible at video games, but still managed to win more often than they should?

✋ My sister.

It used to drive me crazy when I’d talk her into playing Madden football with me, only to hear her abusing the controller, thumb-punching random buttons as fast as she could, and somehow still beating me.

Being new to exercise is kind of like that. In the beginning, it doesn’t matter a whole lot what you do. You can see success from any random exercise simply because you’re doing more than you used to.

But that only works for so long.

Eventually your body gets used to the new stressors of exercise and you’re no longer doing “more.” A new threshold is set. At that point, to continue improving, you have to find ways to still do even more.

This doesn’t mean always doing more more workouts, or working out longer, or constantly trying to increase your intensity. That’s unrealistic and can become unhealthy.

It just means making progress in specific ways. I’ll talk more about that in a minute. But first, we need to know if you should even care.

Should You Care?

Activity is good for you, whether it’s technically exercise or not. In some ways it really doesn’t matter. If you’re doing something other than staying in one place, there’s value in that.

The problem is, if you consider any activity to be exercise, the concept of progress (i.e. adding to the challenge of your current exercise routine) becomes tricky.

For instance, working in the garden is a great way to be active. But if that’s what you do for exercise, once your body is conditioned to that work, it’s not like you can continually plant heavier vegetables.

You can run into a similar problem with more traditional types of exercise.

If you run the same 5 miles every day, or do the same lifting exercises from week to week, your body will get used to it, and you’ll stop improving.

Or, maybe you do the opposite and you have a different challenging workout every time you’re in the gym. It’s good to be active, and you may notice some improvements at first, but there are no consistent elements to your routine you can measure and progress.

Even though it’s a “workout,” it’s not accomplishing anything more than any other random activity.

That may be fine for you if you have nothing you want to improve. Maybe you’re in a place where you’re content with your health and fitness. Can you honestly say that you:

  • don’t have a desire to lose weight

  • are already as lean as you’d like to be

  • don’t want to get any stronger

  • have all the energy you need each day

  • don’t have any health issues that need improving

If so, that’s great. There’s no reason to concern yourself with this. Staying active and maintaining your current condition is all you need.

If not, random activity isn’t gonna do the trick. You’ll have to exercise in a way where you specifically measure and track what you do, so you can progress it after your body builds up a tolerance to the elevated activity.

That’s the only way to continue to see improvements over time.

Ways to Progress

If you have something you want to improve, it helps to know how to do it. Like I said, you can’t always just do “more.”

Sometimes you can.

Sometimes all it takes is adding more weight to a lift, more distance to a run, more effort put forth on a given workout, or just working out more frequently or for more time.

Those are all ways to progress. But if they’re your only options, eventually you’ll get to where you literally can’t progress in those ways, or it becomes impractical, or you get hurt trying.

So what else can you do? Well, there are countless progressions for every type of exercise, but the simple answer comes down to two things: vary your intensity and vary your focus.

Vary Your Intensity

There’s more than one way to think about intensity, but for now let’s just think of it as your effort level on a scale from 1-10.

When you start working on something new, you don’t want to go all in from the get-go, otherwise there’s no room for progress. There are many ways to do it, but here’s one example:

On that 1-10 scale, start at about a 4. Then slowly over weeks (and months) build up to a 9 or 10. Then don’t just stay there, start back over working at a 4 again.

What you’ll find is that your new “4” is more like your old “6.”

You’ll get more work done than before, but with less effort. And you can build up to that 9 or 10 again until you start the process all over, or switch your focus.

Vary Your Focus

Even if you vary your intensity, you’ll still hit a wall at some point and be unable to progress unless you also occasionally vary your focus.

For instance, if the only thing you ever work on is endurance, eventually you’ll have nowhere to go because you aren’t addressing your lack of strength, or your lack of mobility, or your lack of speed, or whatever it may be.

You don’t have to be good at everything, but many aspects of fitness complement (and rely on) the others. If you aren’t seeing improvements, spending time focusing on something new may be exactly what you need.

Just to clarify, I’m not talking about making haphazard changes to your workout program whenever you get the urge. To be effective, your change of focus needs to be intentional, and done over a period of several weeks at a minimum — more realistically a few months.

How to Understand All of This

That’s a lot to take in, but if there’s anything in health or fitness you’re hoping to improve, it’s crucial to understand it all. To make it easier, here are the main takeaways:

If you want to know what to count as exercise, it’s anything with built-in ways to progress.

This is easier to do with more traditional forms of exercise, but can also be done (to an extent) with simple activities like walking.

You just have to actually measure and track your progress. If that’s not happening — even if it’s a more traditional form of exercise — it should be considered more as just an activity that keeps you off your butt.

Both exercise and activity are good for you.

If you want to sustain your current level of fitness, any activity you normally do is fine. But if you want to improve, that takes targeted exercise.

Which is it for you? Do you want to maintain your current condition, or are you looking to improve?

What are you going to do about it?

(The easiest way to tackle it all is with a coach. And the best way to be in touch with one is to sign up for our newsletter, where you’ll get weekly tips, and you can reach out with questions whenever you want.)


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