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What counts as exercise?

Most of us grew up being told we weren’t getting enough exercise unless we’re sweating it out in a gym. We also had to get our heart rate up and panting for breath for it to count. While that type of activity is great, it’s not essential. And you certainly don’t have to go to a gym. Over the past few years, we’ve learned more about what counts as exercise.

Exercise is defined as a planned and structured session of activity carried out to improve or maintain one of more aspects of fitness. Most of the time, we think of exercise as something we do during our leisure-time. It happens after or before work or school.

Often we use the terms exercise and physical activity interchangeably (including me), but they do have subtle differences. Physical activity is any movement of the body. It can be anything from running to standing up from a chair. This means all forms of exercise fall under physical activity, but not the reverse.

how much exercise is needed

How much exercise is needed?

Inherent in the definition of exercise is the notion of some sort of intensity. In particular as it pertains to improving fitness. In order to improve fitness, you need to stress or work, your body in such a way that it isn’t used. Essentially overload it for a short period of time. Of course if you’re already fit, then doing enough exercise to maintain your fitness should be sufficient.

Fitness, however, doesn’t have a good definition. It basically means being able to handle daily and leisure-time activities with energy and vigour, without being fatigued. It also means handling any unexpected physical challenges with ease. This could mean running for the bus, shovelling snow, and if you have them, chasing after children/grandchildren.

The current physical activity guidelines are much more relaxed than the ones of decades old. These recommend getting at least 150 minutes of moderate activity, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity, per week. To count, you must do at least 10 minutes at a time. For most people, moderate activity is a brisk walk. While vigorous activity would be something like running, playing tennis or swimming. The same guidelines suggest working towards double the recommended amount for further health benefits.

As you can see, there’s a trade-off between how much you do, and how intense you do it. The more intense the activity, the lower the minimal recommended time. And there’s science behind this. A small study found three weekly sessions of short bursts of all-out intense exercise over ten minutes resulted in similar improvements in blood sugar and fitness compared to 50 minute sessions of moderate activity.

even vacuuming counts as exercise

Any Activity is Good Activity

But new research suggests that you don’t need to worry about getting in at least 10 minute exercise sessions. It’s the total amount throughout the day that matters, and the recent US guidelines reflect that.

You’re probably not going to go to the gym for less than 10 minutes or play a nine minute game of tennis. So, what then counts as exercise?

Our research has shown that activities done as a part of work, commuting by foot or bike, and even doing household chores can have substantial health benefits. In fact, the people who got the most activity were those who were active throughout the day and not just during leisure time.

This pattern of activity is predominant in the Tsimane in Bolivia, a pre-industrial hunter-gatherer population. The Tsimane spend most of their day active, with less than 10% of the daytime sitting. However, none of their activity would be considered exercise as we know it. They’re also believed to have the lowest rates of atherosclerosis in the world. And while other factors, such as not smoking and diet may be involved, much of the health benefits are likely the result of their high activity levels.

dancing is great exercise

What counts as exercise?

Like the Tsimane, many activities we come across in our daily lives are actually equivalent in time and effort to traditional exercise. For example, shovelling the snow is not much different than running on a treadmill, mowing the lawn is like going for a brisk walk or moderate jog, and climbing stairs at a moderate pace is similar to swimming.

Dancing is another great activity. We previously conducted a study comparing Bhangra dance (comprising of kicking and arm movements originating in India) to gym-based exercise on treadmills and stationary bicycles. While women in both groups improved their fitness after 12 weeks, the dance group went up even higher.

This is not to say that exercise in a gym or running or playing pick-up sports is not valuable. It definitely is. And for me, I get my exercise by swimming at the local community centre. But I also get exercise by commuting on my bicycle and doing errands on foot.

So whether you go to the gym, are active at work or home, or actively commuting, it’s all beneficial. In fact, our body doesn’t care what type of activity we do and what we call it, it only cares that we do it. With all these choices available, there’s bound to be one, or two, or more, types of activity for you that count as exercise. And remember, the best type of exercise is the one you enjoy and will keep doing.

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9 responses to “What counts as exercise?”

  1. I find your comments interesting as always.
    In this context , what do you think of the Cooper point system ? I know that he is now associated with a commercial institute in the USA but his point system did seem to link input – measured by his point system- and outcomes in terms of VO 2.

    1. The point system seems to be an early recognition that you need to be doing more of a lower intense activity compared to a higher intense activity to get a similar benefit. For those people who like numbers and charting progress, I think it’s a much easier way than figuring out calories burned and more interesting than keeping track of your minutes as the points include the differentiation between moderate and vigorous activities.

      Thanks for the comment and reading the blog!

  2. kathleen harman Avatar
    kathleen harman

    Thank you for this Dr Scott – it is so helpful, informative and encouraging, all of which is so important right now.

    1. Thank you Kathleen for the kind words and glad you liked it.

    2. Hi Dr.Scott;There are several controversial articles in the medical literature and comments from enquirers,concerning the relative merits between exercising as walking or as jogging.Apart from the calories&energy expended between the two,are the benefits of walking,equal to that of jogging assuming the same energy expenditure is achieved through walking by spending more time in walking to equal that in the shorter time span of running

      1. Hi Edward, this is a very good question. Walking as an activity is great and you can get most of the same health benefits in terms of disease prevention and longer life as with jogging/running. The one difference is that jogging/running, or any other higher intensity activity, will improve your fitness to a greater extent than walking. This improvement in fitness gives jogging/running a bit of an edge in the health benefits. But, at the end of the day, the activity you like to do is the best one for you. So if a person likes walking and hates running, then it is better to walk for activity than not run.

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  4. Finally, somebody that makes sense. I have been saying for years that if you do your housework, you do not need a gym membership.

    I do several hours of housework a day, not because I overly enjoy it, but because it kills two birds with one stone: I get to live in a clean and enjoyable environment, and I remain physically active and in relatively good shape (not to mention that I am not embarrassed if someone decides to stop in unexpectedly).

    I read another article that said that the body does not know the difference, whether you are exercising in a gym, outdoors, or wherever. The body just knows that you are moving.

    Thank you for the article.

    1. Thanks for the comment and I’m happy you enjoyed it. You are 100% right. It’s movement that matters, not whether you are running around the neighbourhood or for the bus, or hitting a tennis ball or scrubbing the floors.

      I recall one heart patient I worked with who got chest pain when cutting the grass but not when exercising. I suggested he put on his heart rate monitor when cutting the grass, and sure enough, he was working harder cutting the grass than when exercising (so he had to go slower on the grass cutting).

      Keep up the great work!

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