Frequently Asked Question: Is it “physical activity” or “exercise”?

This week, we’re adding to our frequently asked question series by tackling this one: When writing health education materials, should I say “physical activity” or “exercise”?

Before we get to the answer, dear readers, let’s get something straight. Exercise and physical activity are not exactly the same! Sure, physical activity and exercise can both help us stay healthy and relieve stress, but we get really stressed out when they’re used interchangeably.

Physical activity is any bodily movement that uses energy. It can be light, moderate, or vigorous. Some examples of physical activity are walking, dancing, and running. Exercise is a type of physical activity that’s planned and structured. While it can be light, it’s often moderate or vigorous. Some examples of exercise are taking an aerobics class, lifting weights, and playing on a sports team.

Okay — now to answer the FAQ. Here at We ❤ Health Literacy Headquarters, we go with “physical activity” about 99 times out of 100. Why? Because it’s not only a fact that exercise is generally more intense than physical activity — it’s also true that the word “exercise” generally seems more intense than the term “physical activity.” And for some people (a lot of people?), that’s not necessarily a good thing.

To someone currently living a sedentary lifestyle, being told to get more physical activity might feel more manageable than being told to get more exercise. Consider this:

  • Getting more physical activity can help you feel better. Try taking a walk after dinner a few nights this week.
  • Getting more exercise can help you feel better. Try heading to the gym for a treadmill session after dinner a few nights this week.

All that’s different in these examples are the terms used and the corresponding examples — not the amount of time or effort needed. But which do you think seems more doable? Exactly. And since “physical activity” encompasses “exercise,” you’re covered when it comes to accuracy, too.

The bottom line: Choosing between “physical activity” and “exercise”? We (almost always) like “physical activity.”

Tweet about it: Why @CommunicateHlth likes “physical activity” instead of “exercise” for #HealthLit materials:


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