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Why ‘physical activity’ should not be confused with exercise

The benefits of physical activity: Part One
Published: 13/08/2021

In the first of a new series on Insights Hub, we explore why it is important to differentiate between categories of physical activity when it comes to encouraging clients to take steps to improve their health and wellbeing.

Love it or hate it, physical activity is a natural part of our lives. Yet the amount of physical activity that people engage in is largely subject to personal choice and, over time, can vary considerably from one person to another. However, physical activity has been conclusively shown to have both long- and short-term beneficial effects for both physical and mental health. And it should also be encouraged at all ages1.

For a definition of what we mean by physical activity, look no further than the World Health Organisation (WHO). It describes it as any bodily movement that results in energy expenditure, including walking, cycling, wheeling, sports, active recreation, play and gardening.

Even though the beneficial effects of physical activity are generally consistent across various aspects of human health, the extent to which an activity contributes to health improvement depends on many factors, including type of activity, its duration, intensity and frequency.

All types of activity can be characterised by their energy expenditure, typically expressed in kilojoules (kJ), kilocalories (kcal or Cal) or METs (metabolic equivalents of task), a standardised measurement which explicitly relates energy expenditure to a person’s weight.

This is particularly useful in order to establish a common denominator for different types of activity, reflecting that, for example, going for a run is considerably more physically demanding - and provides greater benefits - than going for a walk. Combined with duration, one can therefore determine the total energy expenditure for an activity or for the day as a whole.

This is also reflected in the official WHO guidelines (see below), which refer to the minimum recommended amount of activity per week and recognise that more vigorous activity, such as  running, fast-cycling, is broadly twice as demanding - results in twice as much energy expenditure per unit of time - as moderately intense activity like fast-paced walking or cycling at a regular pace.

Three simple rules.

There are important - but sometimes subtle - differences between physical activity, exercise, fitness and sedentary behaviour.
Rule One.
Do not confuse the term 'physical activity' with 'exercise', which is a subcategory of physical activity that is planned, structured, repetitive, and aims to improve or maintain one or more components of physical fitness.
Rule Two.
Physical exercise should not be confused with 'physical fitness', which relates to a set of attributes that people have or achieve. It also applies to a person's ability to carry out tasks with force and without fatigue. This may include cardiorespiratory endurance, muscular endurance, muscular strength, body composition, or flexibility.
Rule Three.
A lack of physical activity should not be confused with sedentary behaviour, which has recently gained in importance as a separate major mortality risk factor . Defined as waking behaviour characterised by an energy level under 1.5 METs while in sitting, reclining or lying posture3. Indeed, individuals can be considered both active and sedentary at the same time and should aim to increase or maintain their physical activity levels while also reducing or maintaining low levels of sedentary behaviour.

What is the official guidance around physical activity?

The WHO guidelines published in November 20204, for adults aged 18 years or above, recommend:
  • Do at least 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity throughout the week or do at least 75-150 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity throughout the week, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity activity
  • Do muscle-strengthening activities involving major muscle groups on two or more days a week
  • Limit the amount of time spent being sedentary, replacing it with physical activity of any intensity.
View our Physical Activity report
Coming next: The prevalence of physical inactivity and why we need to change it.

Insights for the article were taken from our report titled ‘Protective benefits of the Vitality Programme: Physical Activity’ – read the full report 

Learn more about how through encouraging and incentivising physical activity, the Vitality Programme can benefit the health and wellbeing of your client.

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    Our Insights Hub brings you our range of adviser content - from video series to articles & blogs.

1World Health Organisation
2Thivel, D., Tremblay, A., Genin, P. M., Panahi, S., Rivière, D., & Duclos, M. (2018). Physical activity, inactivity, and sedentary behaviours: definitions and implications in occupational health
3International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity
4World Health Organisation guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behaviour – November 2020