In the fitness community, three popular terms are often used to describe what happens or should happen inside the gym. These terms are physical activity, exercise, and training.
In everyday life, it’s very common to use these terms interchangeably. Even doctors and trainers do it and this is perfectly understandable because they actually have a lot in common. However, training, exercise, and physical activity refer to different things that produce different results on the body.
Which one should we do? Which one is more effective? Let’s see how to differentiate between the three and what we should consider when choosing one over the other.
Before diving into the moving vs. exercising vs. training debate, it’s important to understand the concept of physical fitness. Physical fitness, or more simply fitness, is the overarching theme under which training, exercise, and physical activity aggregate.
Kilgore and Rippetoe define fitness as the “possession of adequate levels of strength, endurance, and mobility to provide for successful participation in occupational effort, recreational pursuits, familial obligation, and that is consistent with a functional phenotypic expression of the human genotype”. This long definition is essentially saying us two things.
- The optimum expression of the human being is a fit human
- An adequate level of fitness is needed to function properly and enjoy life
Elaborating this concept, we could say there is a minimum level of fitness we all should achieve, and a maximum level of fitness we all can aim for. The minimum level is the “avoiding dying too early” level, which marks the line between acceptable and unacceptable. This is the bare minimum to live properly and everyone should work towards meeting this standard, at least.
The maximum level is instead our full genetic potential, which sets the upper limit for physical development. Obviously, not everyone has to go this far (very few people actually manage to get here). More simply, this is the highest level of fitness we can possibly achieve. Then, it is up to us deciding how much to improve, and how much fit is fit enough.
However, how can we improve our fitness? Essentially, there are three ways. They are training, exercise, and physical activity.
Physical activity is the most unpretentious way to improve physical fitness. The American Heart Association (AHA) defines physical activity as anything that makes you move your body and burn calories.
According to this definition, physical activity is a rather broad category. Essentially, it includes everything from day to day’s activities, such as walking and climbing the stairs, to playing sports such as jogging, swimming, or biking. In other words, anything but sleeping or resting is physical activity. AHA’s general recommendations in terms of physical activity for adults are:
|Goal||Type of Activity||Duration||Frequency|
|Overall cardiovascular health||Moderate aerobic activity||30+ minutes||5+ times per week|
|Vigorous aerobic activity||25+ minutes||3+ times per week|
|Lowering blood pressure and cholesterol||Moderate-vigorous aerobic activity||~40 minutes||3-4 times per week|
Additionally, the AHA recommends performing moderate to high-intensity muscle-strengthening activity, at least 2 times per week, for additional health benefits. If you cannot make it to these goals, set reachable goals and work up from there by gradually increasing time.
As you may imagine, this program is not designed to set world records. Rather, the focus is on improving overall cardiovascular health and lowering the risk of heart attack and stroke. Physical activity requires minimal amounts of effort and commitment. This makes it ideal for sedentary individuals, as doing something is always better than doing nothing.
Conversely, more challenging forms of physical exertion would probably better serve healthy individuals with more ambitious goals than merely avoiding premature death. In fact, physical activity is often not enough to produce meaningful adaptations. Even elderly people can approach fitness in a more productive way than moving for an arbitrarily recommended amount of time. This is where we raise the bar a little bit and introduce the concept of exercise.
Moving on up the fitness ladder, the next step is exercise. If compared to physical activity, exercise is more physically demanding. In fact, this is where we typically draw the line between athletes and non-athletes. Athletes are competitive and have bigger goals in sight than reducing their chances of dying for a cardiac event. Rather, they seek to escalate their physical capacities by means the AHA would probably consider excessive. This is why, in general, exercise is a more productive way to express fitness altogether.
However, what is exercise, exactly? Borrowing from Mark Rippetoe, we could define exercise as “physical exertion for the effect it produces today, right now”. Meaning, exercise is designed to meet the specific needs of the athlete, yet only in the very short-term.
Exercise can have all sorts of purposes. There are workouts for burning calories, for building endurance, for improving flexibility, for toning muscles, for getting sweaty, etc. Regardless of their effectiveness or toughness, though, they all have one thing in common. That is, there is no long-term planning whatsoever. Each workout is performed for the effects it produces while doing it, or immediately after the session is over.
On an extreme level, exercise may well involve doing the same exact things every time we go to the gym (and we all know the guy who has been doing the same workout forever). To the other extreme, instead, exercise might become a sequence of random workouts, totally unrelated one from the other. This is often the case with gym or group classes.
To sum it up, exercise makes you feel like you want to feel – today. Each workout is an end in itself. This lack of planning and long-term strategy is exactly what makes the difference between exercise and training.
The third and last option to improve physical fitness is training. Training and exercise are similar in the sense they both consist of series of workouts. At the same time, though, they are profoundly different in the way they structure them.
Exercise, as we just said, focuses mostly on short-term results. Each workout is done for its own sake and does not necessarily relate to each other. The goal is to satisfy the immediate needs of the exerciser. As a result, there is no need for planning or long-term strategies. Training, on the other hand, has the purpose of satisfying long-term performance goals. In this case, workouts are not separate, stand-alone entities, but rather connected pieces working together.
Athletes with a specific objective in mind need a solid plan to get there gradually, one step at the time. Training accomplishes this purpose by making each step follow the previous one in a logical progression. With training, long-term improvement is the key. Each workout plays a specific role in the process of generating a result.
Focusing on reaching actual goals, training is a very effective way to organize workouts. Under almost every circumstance, in fact, a logical, goal-oriented progression will yield better results than any semi-random sequence of movements. However, this also makes training an extremely complex subject. Firstly, because of the high number of variables to consider when writing a training program. Secondly, because of the continuous adjustments programs need.
In my article What Is The Best Training Program? I list what, in my opinion, are the essential requirements any good program must have. That, however, is just a start. What looks good on paper does not always work out. Training programs focus on reaching goals and, therefore, need adjustments based on the actual progress of the athlete.
Training, Exercise, or Physical Activity?
Now that we know the main differences between training, exercise, and physical activity, how can we decide which one is best for us? As always, it depends.
For sedentary individuals whose cardiovascular health is at risk or people with no particular fitness goal, physical activity is probably the best option. Physical activity is easy to start and easy to adhere to. Everyone can find the time to go for a walk, take the stairs instead of the elevator, and benefit from being more physically active throughout the day.
That said, however, the “something is better than nothing” mentality will only take us so far in terms of achievements. Avoiding premature death is great, but many refuse to stop there. Most commonly, people want to lose fat, put on muscle, and improve sports performance. At that point, the choice is between exercise and training.
Training is best for people with specific goals and who are willing to reach those goals. Adding 3 kg of lean muscle mass, dropping body fat to 10%, adding 10 kg to the Bench Press, etc. Training programs are designed to reach goals. This involves careful planning and gives training programs a logical, organized structure. However, training also requires patience and commitment. As I write in my article Program Adherence and Consistency, that can cause problems. True progress takes time and some people find it hard to wait out the feeling of accomplishment for too long.
Additionally, most people are not sure about what they are doing inside the gym or what they want to accomplish in the first place. Their goals (losing weight, getting in shape, etc.) are too vague and ambiguous to design a program, and they would probably find the program boring anyway. For these people, exercise is definitely the way to go.
Despite common misconceptions, there is a difference between training, exercise, and physical activity. Each term refers to a different approach to fitness, which produces a different result on the body.
Physical activity is low-investment, low-return. Essentially, you try to get some of each week to keep you healthy and your doctor happy. Many people can benefit from physical activity just because the alternative would be doing nothing. However, simply being more active is not enough to see appreciable results. Instead of just “moving”, athletes need to either train or exercise.
Exercise focuses on short-term results. Burning calories, toning muscles, getting sweaty, etc. Each workout makes you feel like you want to feel today. The absence of a logical progression from session to session is not necessarily a bad thing as many people lack the focus and the motivation to stick to a program for too long.
At the same time, though, other people will find the unorganized structure of exercise limiting their progress. Achievements do not occur accidentally. This is why training, unlike exercise, does not focus on the single workouts but rather on their overall, cumulative effect. This makes training extremely effective and a better choice for competitive athletes or people with clear goals in mind.
So, which one is best? Training, exercise, or physical activity? Once again, there is not just one answer. It all depends on our fitness level and, most importantly, on what we want to achieve.