Activities such as jogging or swimming are forms of

Exercise and Physical Activity: What’s the Difference?

Physical activity is defined as movement that involves contraction of your muscles. Any of the activities we do throughout the day that involve movement — housework, gardening, walking, climbing stairs — are examples of physical activity.

Exercise is a specific form of physical activity — planned, purposeful physical activity performed with the intention of acquiring fitness or other health benefits, says David Bassett, Jr., PhD, a professor in the department of exercise, sport, and leisure studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Working out at a health club, swimming, cycling, running, and sports, like golf and tennis, are all forms of exercise.

Physical Activity and Exercise: Understanding the Difference

Most daily physical activity is considered light to moderate in intensity. There are certain health benefits that can only be accomplished with more strenuous physical activity, however. Improvement in cardiovascular fitness is one example. Jogging or running provides greater cardiovascular benefit than walking at a leisurely pace, for instance. Additionally, enhanced fitness doesn’t just depend of what physical activity you do, it also depends on how vigorously and for how long you continue the activity. That’s why it’s important to exercise within your target heart rate range when doing cardio, for example, to reach a certain level of intensity.

Physical Activity and Exercise: Understanding Intensity

How can you tell if an activity is considered moderate or vigorous in intensity? If you can talk while performing it, it’s moderate. If you need to stop to catch your breath after saying just a few words, it’s vigorous. Depending on your fitness level, a game of doubles tennis would probably be moderate in intensity, while a singles game would be more vigorous. Likewise, ballroom dancing would be moderate, but aerobic dancing would be considered vigorous. Again, it’s not just your choice of activity, it’s how much exertion it requires.

8 Everyday Activities That Totally Count as Exercise

Burn, baby, burn—calories that is. Everyone burns fuel doing everyday activities. Scientists even have a name for it: non-exercise activity thermogenesis. It’s the energy you use walking up stairs or lifting grocery bags, and with a little imagination, it’s easy to turn mundane activities into calorie-burning opportunities.

The best part? Research suggests these activities can help with weight management and actually count toward recommended exercise guidelines.Moderate to vigorous physical activity and weight outcomes: does every minute count? Fan JX, Brown BB, Hanson H. American journal of health promotion : AJHP, 2013, Mar.;28(1):2168-6602. (The CDC recommends two-and-a-half hours of aerobic activity and two days of strength training per week.)

Your Action Plan

For decades, researchers assumed you needed to break a sweat—or at least raise your heart rate for a prolonged period—for an activity to count toward exercise guidelines. But new research is causing scientists to rethink those beliefs. One study, for example, found that short bouts of higher-intensity exercise were associated with a decreased risk of being overweight or obese.Moderate to vigorous physical activity and weight outcomes: does every minute count? Fan JX, Brown BB, Hanson H. American journal of health promotion : AJHP, 2013, Mar.;28(1):2168-6602. (“Short bouts” refers to fewer than 10 minutes of physical activity.)

These findings should encourage us to take advantage of all the opportunities to get active, from the kitchen to the laundry room. Here are eight activities that sneak exercise into your routine while also crossing things off your to-do list.

1. Shopping

Whether you’re buying groceries or a new pair of shoes, shopping means walking, and walking burns calories (we’re talking upwards of 200 calories per hour).How many steps/day are enough? For adults. Tudor-Locke C, Craig CL, Brown WJ. The international journal of behavioral nutrition and physical activity, 2011, Jul.;8():1479-5868. You can get an even better workout by parking far from the store’s entrance and avoiding elevators and escalators. Bonus: Try two stairs at a time to really get things moving.

2. Cleaning

Vacuuming, sweeping, or Swiffering is good for 150 calories per hour. So turn on some tunes and blast away those dust bunnies (and a few extra cals). Next time you do laundry, pick up the basket and twist your torso from side to side for a few reps—you’ve just snuck in a quick oblique workout.

3. Cooking

Working in the kitchen—everything from chopping veggies to washing pots and pans—burns around 75 calories in 30 minutes. Ditch the electric mixer and stir batters by hand to give your arm muscles some extra loving.

4. Sitting

Before you roll your eyes, we aren’t trying to say you’re going to get healthy sitting down all day long. But there are things you can do while parked in a chair to get in a bit of exercise. Try lifting your shoulders to your ears. Next, tighten your core, squeeze your butt, and let the muscle toning begin.

5. Washing Your Car

Washing your car can burn 135 calories in 30 minutes. Add in a few sets of calf raises to reach the roof of the car and a few sets of squats to wash the tires—you’ll get in a quick leg workout while making your car shine.

6. Commuting

Get off the bus or train one stop early to go the extra mile—literally. Extra credit: Walk along the curb to improve balance and work your core (safety first, though).

7. Shoveling Snow

Don’t let bad weather stop you from working out—aerobic exercise is just a shovel away!Coagulation and fibrinolytic responses to manual versus automated snow removal. Womack CJ, Paton CM, Coughlin AM. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 2004, Apr.;35(10):0195-9131. Shoveling snow for 30 minutes can burn over 180 calories. Ready for more? Put on your headphones with some upbeat music and pick up the pace.

8. Ordering Drinks

You probably think the only thing getting a workout at the bar is your liver. But here’s one thing you can do while waiting for the bartender to take your order: Stand on one foot. Not only will it work your core with some basic balancing, it’s also a handy way to measure tipsiness too!

The Takeaway

While traditional aerobic activity and strength training are key to maintaining a healthy lifestyle, everyday activities can be a great way to get moving.

Originally published March 2012. Updated April 2017.

Crockett does make one caveat: “One common mistake people make is setting the machine to a pace that requires you to hold on,” he says. “When adjusting the incline or speed, make sure it is set at a pace that you can safely walk or run on without hanging on for dear life. This takes away from the muscle engagement and energy required to actually walk or run at the level you set it to.”

Try Intervals: “A quick way to get the most out of your workout on the treadmill whether walking or running is to challenge your body with interval training,” says Crockett. “You can build up your strength and cardio endurance by using short intervals to maximize your time.”

So where do you start? “The right place to start with walking intervals will depend on your current fitness level, but here’s a treadmill interval template to test out and see what adjustments you need to make,” says Spraul. “Start by walking for 5 minutes at a comfortable speed with no incline to get warmed up. Once you’re done there, increase the incline to 5 percent for 3 minutes (no need to increase the speed when you’re first starting out). After those 3 minutes are up, return to 0 incline for 1 minute of rest, while keeping the same speed. Repeat this for 3-5 rounds, depending on how you’re feeling. Then you can adjust as needed: To add difficulty, you can increase the ‘work’ time that you spend on the incline, decrease the time you spend ‘resting’ at 0 incline or increase the pace of each phase. Find what works for you, and slowly increase your difficulty over time to keep making progress!”

Dr. Tannenberg offers another tip for incorporating intervals into your workout: “Create a new playlist with upbeat songs followed by slower songs. Alternate the songs on your playlist. When you are walking and hear a faster song, you increase your pace. When the slower song comes on, you slow down the pace a bit. This is an easy way to make your normal morning walk an interval workout.”

Add Weights: Another way to add intensity to a walking routine is to use weights. “Whether you’re on the treadmill or you hop off on your ‘rest interval,’ you can add weight to keep your heart rate up and add some strength training into the mix,” says Crockett. “While you’re walking on an incline, adding some dumbbell shoulder presses or dumbbell jabs can help you tone your arms and burn even more calories. hop off the treadmill after your fast interval and try some quick high repetition exercises, such as dumbbell squats, squat to press, weighted jumping jacks or weighted sit ups.”

“Carrying extra weight will increase the intensity and your calories burned without requiring a lot of extra effort, depending on the weight you use,” adds Spraul. “You can hold dumbbells in your hands or put some heavy books in a backpack — whatever works for you! It doesn’t have to be complicated. Just make sure that the added weight is not throwing you off balance.”

Ready to give it a try? Here is a 30-minute treadmill workout to have in your back pocket next time you’re at the gym (absolutely no running required!).


  • 10 core exercises that are better for your back (and body) than crunches
  • 5 exercises you can perform anywhere, anytime
  • A 10-minute cardio workout you can do at home
  • 5 exercises that will strengthen your back and reduce pain
  • 8 exercises trainers never do (and what to do instead)

Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Physical Activity vs. Exercise: What’s the Difference?

How did you spend your last 24 hours? What do you do during a typical 24-hour weekday? Take a few moments and divide up those 24 hours and reflect on how you typically spend that time. How many hours did you spend sleeping? How many hours did you spend sitting down (don’t forget the times you sit in the car, while you eat, etc.)? How many hours did you spend moving?

Once you have completed your 24-hour self-reflection activity, think more specifically about your movement time. What type of movement did you do? What was the intensity and intentionality of that movement?

Over the past few decades, Americans have heard over and over that a minimum of 30 minutes of daily exercise is essential to good health. However, the latest research suggests that how much time we spend sitting could be just as important as how much time we spend exercising. In fact, a new term has been coined to describe those who exercise, but spend the majority of their days being sedentary: active couch potatoes.

While the term couch potato usually refers to a lazy person who prefers to just sit around and watch TV, an active couch potato refers to someone who is inactive for the majority of the day, but regularly makes sure to get in 30 minutes of exercise on most days. An active couch potato is not necessarily lazy, but spend most of his or her time sitting during leisure time, work (and commuting to and from work) and while eating meals. In other words, they’re almost completely physically inactive throughout the day, with the exception of that 30 or minutes of daily exercise. Although 30 minutes of exercise is absolutely beneficial and healthful, the rest of the day is causing tremendous health hazards. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) has identified physical inactivity as an independent risk factor for chronic disease development, and it is now the fourth leading cause of death worldwide.

So, exactly how do we differentiate between exercise and being physically active? And is the distinction important? Here are some definitions that should help clear things up:

Physical activity is movement that is carried out by the skeletal muscles that requires energy. In other words, any movement one does is actually physical activity.

Exercise, however, is planned, structured, repetitive and intentional movement intended to improve or maintain physical fitness. Exercise is a subcategory of physical activity.

Research provides significant evidence that ALL physical activity positively contributes to overall health and well-being. Exercise also assists with the improvement of physical fitness, which consists of five specific components:

-Cardiorespiratory fitness

-Muscular strength fitness

-Muscular endurance fitness

-Flexibility fitness

-Body composition

This graphic from the American Institute for Cancer Research visually depicts the importance of both daily physical activity AND structured exercise (in relation to cancer indicators). Here, the green reflects structured exercise, while the yellow reflects daily physical activity.

Source: American Institute for Cancer Research

How Can You Become More Physically Active?

An easy way to start transforming a sedentary lifestyle into a more active one is to begin standing more and sitting less. If you work at a desk all day, create a workstation that requires you to stand (and therefore move more). Think about creating opportunities to walk at lunchtime and before or after work. Consider adding leisure time activities to your weekly routines, especially those that involve the whole family, such as bike rides, hikes and walks around the neighborhood. What about your home? Do you enjoy gardening? Make time for it throughout the week instead of leaving it all to the weekend. And instead of dedicating just one day every other week to clean, try to include daily active chores that take 10 minutes or less. When you engage with technology, creatively think about how you can move. Try placing some simple equipment like a yoga mat or resistance ball or resistance bands in your living room so they are easily accessible while watching TV. There are countless opportunities to increase daily physical activity, but you do have to look for them.

As you evaluate your 24-hour activity reflection, consider making a detailed plan that includes both elements:

1. Daily increased physical activity

2. Structured, planned, intentional exercise to improve physical fitness

Omitting one or the other can have serious and detrimental consequences for your health, fitness and overall well-being. Don’t be a couch potato or an active couch potato—make the change today and add BOTH elements to your life to reap the life-changing benefits of physical activity and exercise.

July 15, 2009 (Vienna, Austria) — A warning to female marathoners: Long-term strenuous activity may lead to memory loss.

In a new study, women who regularly engaged in exercises like running, swimming laps, or calisthenics for decades experienced a significant decline in memory, recall, and other brain skills.

Long-term moderate exercise, such as brisk walking or cycling on level streets, helped women to sharpen their mental skills.

“People often think, if a little is good, a lot is better. But that’s not the case here,” says researcher Mary C. Tierney, PhD, of the University of Toronto.

The study was presented here at the Alzheimer’s Association 2009 International Conference on Alzheimer’s Disease.

Tierney tells WebMD that she undertook the study after research showed that moderate exercise lowered breast cancer risk, and strenuous exercise lowered risk even further.

“The researchers argued that exercise exerted its protective effect by lowering estrogen levels in the body. Since estrogen is known to affect the brain positively throughout a woman’s life, we wondered about the effect of exercise on cognitive function,” she explains.

Additionally, studies in which rats ran on a treadmill showed that “the further they pushed, the greater the damage to the brain, especially in the hippocampus, the key area for learning and memory,” Tierney says.

What is intensity?

Physical activity is anything that moves your body and burns calories. This includes things like walking, climbing stairs and stretching.

Aerobic (or “cardio”) activity gets your heart rate up and benefits your heart by improving cardiorespiratory fitness. When done at moderate intensity, your heart will beat faster and you’ll breathe harder than normal, but you’ll still be able to talk. Think of it as a medium or moderate amount of effort.

Examples of moderate-intensity aerobic activities:

  • brisk walking (at least 2.5 miles per hour)
  • water aerobics
  • dancing (ballroom or social)
  • gardening
  • tennis (doubles)
  • biking slower than 10 miles per hour

Vigorous intensity activities will push your body a little further. They will require a higher amount of effort. You’ll probably get warm and begin to sweat. You won’t be able to talk much without getting out of breath.

Examples of vigorous-intensity aerobic activities:

  • hiking uphill or with a heavy backpack
  • running
  • swimming laps
  • aerobic dancing
  • heavy yardwork like continuous digging or hoeing
  • tennis (singles)
  • cycling 10 miles per hour or faster
  • jumping rope

Knowing your target heart rate can also help you track the intensity of your activities.

For maximum benefits, include both moderate- and vigorous-intensity activity in your routine along with strengthening and stretching exercises.

What if I’m just starting to get active?

Don’t worry if you can’t reach 150 minutes per week just yet. Everyone has to start somewhere. Even if you’ve been sedentary for years, today is the day you can begin to make healthy changes in your life. Set a reachable goal for today. You can work up toward the recommended amount by increasing your time as you get stronger. Don’t let all-or-nothing thinking keep you from doing what you can every day.

The simplest way to get moving and improve your health is to start walking. It’s free, easy and can be done just about anywhere, even in place.

Any amount of movement is better than none. And you can break it up into short bouts of activity throughout the day. Taking a brisk walk for five or ten minutes a few times a day will add up.

If you have a chronic condition or disability, talk with your healthcare provider about what types and amounts of physical activity are right for you before making too many changes. But don’t wait! Get started today by simply sitting less and moving more, whatever that looks like for you.

The takeaway: Move more, with more intensity, and sit less.

Science has linked being inactive and sitting too much with higher risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, colon and lung cancers, and early death.

It’s clear that being more active benefits everyone and helps us live longer, healthier lives.

Here are some of the big wins:

  • Lower risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, dementia and Alzheimer’s, several types of cancer, and some complications of pregnancy
  • Better sleep, including improvements in insomnia and obstructive sleep apnea
  • Improved cognition, including memory, attention and processing speed
  • Less weight gain, obesity and related chronic health conditions
  • Better bone health and balance, with less risk of injury from falls
  • Fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety
  • Better quality of life and sense of overall well-being

So what are you waiting for? Let’s get moving!
Share an infographic of the Physical Activity Recommendations for Adults and the Physical Activity Recommendations for Kids

Significant health benefits are seen in adults aged 65 years and older who participate in regular physical activity. The 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines recommend older adults to incorporate aerobic activity, muscle-strengthening activity, and balance training for older adults at risk for falls. Try to avoid inactivity because some health benefits can occur with any amount of physical activity gain. Older adults need to evaluate their level of fitness before determining their level of effort for physical activity. Chronic conditions need to be taken into consideration since they may affect their ability to do regular physical activity safely.

Inactive Older Adults

Remember to start slowly! Aim for light or moderate intensity for short periods of time. Make sure to spread out the physical activity sessions throughout the week. Increase physical activity gradually over a period of weeks to months.

Talk to your doctor if you have a chronic health condition (such as heart disease, arthritis, or diabetes) or symptoms (such as chest pain or pressure, dizziness, or joint pain) before starting a physical activity program.

Warm-up and Cool-down

It is important to incorporate slower speed or lower intensity activities at the beginning and end of your routine to properly warm up and cool down your body. This helps to prevent injuries and reduce muscle soreness. Examples of warming-up would be to walk briskly before jogging or lift a lighter weight before completing the actual weight used during weight training. After completing the physical activity, gradually slow down or lower intensity to help the body cool down. Good news, adults can count the time spent during warm-up and cool-down towards meeting aerobic activity guidelines.

Aerobic Activity

Aerobic activity is also known as endurance activity and examples include: brisk walking, jogging, biking, dancing, and swimming. Older adults should aim for at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week, 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity each week, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. When chronic conditions make it hard to achieve the 150 minutes each week, older adults should be physically active as their abilities and conditions allow. Perform aerobic activity for at least 3 days a week to help avoid excessive fatigue and reduce risk of injury. It counts as long as the aerobic activity is performed at a moderate or vigorous effort for at least 10 minutes at a time. The intensity of the activity depends upon the older adult’s level of fitness.

Examples of aerobic activities:

  • Walking
  • Dancing
  • Swimming
  • Water aerobics
  • Jogging
  • Aerobic exercise classes
  • Bicycle riding (stationary or on a path)
  • Some activities of gardening, such as raking and pushing a lawn mower
  • Tennis
  • Golf (without a cart)
Muscle-Strengthening Activities

Older adults should participate in muscle-strengthening activities at least 2 days a week while including all major muscle groups: the legs, hips, back, chest, abdomen, shoulders, and arms. One set of 8 to 12 repetitions of each exercise is effective, but doing two or three sets of 8 to 12 repetitions may be more effective.

Examples of muscle-strengthening activities:

  • Exercises using exercise bands, weight machines, hand-held weights
  • Calisthenic exercises (body weight provides resistance to movement)
  • Digging, lifting, and carrying as part of gardening
  • Carrying groceries
  • Some yoga exercises
  • Some tai chi exercises
Balance Activities for Older Adults

Older adults at risk of falling should concentrate on exercises that maintain or improve balance. Increased risk of falling occurs when older adults have trouble walking or have had falls in the recent past. Participating in regular physical activity is not only safe for older adults, but it helps reduce the risk of falls. The guidelines recommend older adults to do balance training 3 or more days a week and do standardized exercises from a program demonstrated to reduce falls.

Examples of balance exercises:

  • Backward walking
  • Sideways walking
  • Heel walking
  • Toe walking
  • Standing from a sitting position
Flexibility Activities

Even though flexibility does not have recommended guidelines, it is an important part of physical fitness. Flexibility plays an integral part in some types of physical activities such as dancing. Adults should perform stretching exercises to help increase flexibility. Activities that require greater flexibility is easier for adults who perform stretching exercises.


  • Chapter 5: Active Older Adults (Source: DHHS)
  • Chapter 6: Safe and Active (Source: DHHS)
  • Physical Activity for Older Adults (Source: CDC)
  • Go4Life (Source: National Institute on Aging)
  • Try These Exercises (Source: Go4Life)
  • Workout to Go (Source: Go4Life)
  • Fit in 10 Exercise (Source: University of Arkansas Research & Extension)
  • Healthy Eating and Lifestyle for the Later Years (Source: NebGuide)
  • Start Walking Now (Source: American Heart Association)

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Definition of ’physical activity’

Example sentences including physical activity

These examples have been automatically selected and may contain sensitive content. Read more… We need to be more creative in how we build physical activity back into their daily lives. The Sun (2016) It features six songs by the duo and promotes physical activity in an app game. The Sun (2016) Can measuring physical activity really help us be healthier? Times, Sunday Times (2016) The conventional thinking is still that this transition goes along with too much food and not enough physical activity. Times, Sunday Times (2017) Diame then spent almost a year out of the game, with some warning him he must cease any form of physical activity. The Sun (2016) It seems, too, that it is the thought rather than the physical activity that matters. Times, Sunday Times (2016) People who took part in a range of different physical activities in their youth were more likely to continue with sports as they aged, he said. Times, Sunday Times (2016) This can include promoting physical activity or providing managers with the training needed to manage emotional wellbeing. Times, Sunday Times (2012) Physical activity and exercise can lift mood and improve happiness in various ways. Paul Martin MAKING HAPPY PEOPLE (2005) The only physical activity they will do is jump through hoops for sponsors. Times, Sunday Times (2013) Show more… Physical activities as well as the tools or devices used Relationships with other persons. A Conceptual View of Human Resource Management: Strategic Objectives, Environments, Functions It also combines physical activity, creativity and beauty in a way that appeals to all. Times, Sunday Times (2008) Physical activity is good for your health and self-esteem though. The Sun (2012) PE lessons are worthwhile if they involve physical activity. Times, Sunday Times (2009) Cutting back on calories from unhealthy, sugary and refined food sources and increasing physical activity can significantly reduce your risk. Colette Harris, With Theresa Cheung PCOS DIET BOOK: How you can use the nutritional approach to deal with polycystic ovary syndrome (2002) What sports or physical activities did I enjoy at school? Westcott, Patsy Alternative Health Care for Women (1991) But recently I have felt the need to reconsider my entrenched views against physical activity. Times, Sunday Times (2008) They are not expected to work, attend class, or engage in strenuous physical activity. Appelbaum, Richard P. Sociology (1995) In the biggest study of its kind, researchers quizzed 20,000 adults on how much physical activity they did. The Sun (2010) New options on the curriculum for entry year include physical activity and health, hospitality management, and leisure and lifestyle management. Times, Sunday Times (2010) Think about how you’ll feel when you are finished – virtuous and on a natural high from the endorphins released during physical activity. Pete Cohen and Sten Cummins with Jennai Cox HABIT BUSTING: A 10-step plan that will change your life (2002)

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