Why it's possible to be active and never exercise

Exercise is a modern invention. For millions of years humans got along just fine without it.

To be clear, humans were physically active. They hunted animals and foraged for food. They travelled great distances, but they didn’t exercise. At least not in the way we think of it today.

Exercise is technically defined as planned, structured, repetitive and intentional movement intended to improve or maintain physical fitness, like endurance, flexibility and strength. It’s what you do when you go to the gym to get stronger.

Physical activity, on the other hand, includes all types of movement. Anything from running errands to washing your car. From walking your dog to dancing at a wedding. All exercise is physical activity, but not all physical activity is exercise. It’s a fingers and thumbs type situation.

Exercise, as a thing people do, really only became popular after WWII. It’s strange to think now, given its high prevalence in our society, but before the 1940s working out wasn’t common. Intentional exercise was rare.

Fast forward to today and exercise is everywhere. A colossal fitness industry has been built upon the notion that we need exercise. We need it to manage our weight. Our hearts need it. Our bones need it. Cardio and curls. Sit-ups and squats. The message that we all need more exercise is one we’ve become accustomed to hearing.

The problem is that it’s not entirely true. We all need to work our muscles, hearts and lungs. We need to be physically active. But strictly speaking, we don’t necessarily need to exercise.

Why the difference matters

Now, at first glance, you might think that’s an odd point to make, especially for ParticipACTION. Who cares whether we say physical activity or exercise, because at the end of the day, aren’t we all talking about the same thing? Not really.

The difference matters because we have preconceived notions about exercise and many of them aren’t helpful for leading an active life.

The first, and most obvious, is that many people hate exercising. They find gyms intimidating and lifting weights boring. They don’t enjoy it. They dread it. They loathe it. They’d, quite simply, rather not.

So, a message about exercising more is liable to fall on deaf ears. It meets with a resounding, “No thanks.” If we really want Canadians to move more, and we definitely should, moving past the language of exercise is essential. It’s possible to lead an active life with minimal exercise and that’s a message more Canadians need to hear.

The second, less obvious notion is that many people have come to believe that exercise alone is enough to be healthy and fit. Unfortunately, in recent years, physical activity research has proven that things are actually more complicated.  

When it comes to your health, the amount of time you spend at the gym isn’t the only thing that matters. What’s important is not just how active you are, but also, how sedentary you are. Sedentary behaviours are activities that require very little energy and that are generally done while sitting or lying down. Think watching TV, working on a computer, and riding in a car. This is not to be confused with physical inactivity, which refers to not getting enough heart-pumping physical activity. 

It’s actually altogether too easy for someone who exercises regularly to lead an otherwise sedentary lifestyle. People who go to the gym three times a week but spend 8 or more hours sitting every day at work fall into this category of active couch potatoes. They get enough activity, but they sit too much.

What’s troubling is that physical activity research has shown that movement doesn’t undo the negative effects of sitting. In other words, regardless of how much time you spend at the gym, sitting all day is bad for your health. There are two sides to the physical activity coin and both of them matter for independent reasons. That’s why ParticipACTION is about moving more AND sitting less.

With this in mind, it becomes clear why using exercise as a stand-in for physical activity is a bad habit. It leads some people to think of the last thing they’d ever consider doing and others to ignore an aspect of physical activity that is essential to their wellbeing. It glosses over a difference that matters.

So, how much exercise do people really need?

Canada has Physical Activity Guidelines, not exercise guidelines, for a reason. For optimal health, adults need 150 minutes, or 2.5 hours, of heart-pumping physical activity each week.

Exercise can be a great way for people to accumulate those minutes. If you love going to the gym, that’s awesome. Go squat it out.

If, however, you don’t enjoy exercise, take solace in the fact that it’s possible to lead an active life without ever stepping foot in a gym. Focus on walking more, taking breaks from sitting as often as possible (ideally 2 minutes every 30 minutes), and getting your heart-pumping in ways you actually enjoy, like playing a sport, biking to work, or hiking trails on the weekend.

Exercise is a modern invention, but unfortunately, it’s not a modern solution. Exercise alone will not solve today’s inactivity crisis. Instead, we would do better to look back to a time before exercise existed, when movement was a way of life.

In our quest to make things convenient, we’ve figured out motionless ways to acquire all the basic necessities of life, forgetting in our haste, that moving our bodies is one of those necessities.

That’s something our modern conception of exercise too often leaves out. We would all do well to think about physical activity in a broader, more essential, and hopefully more enjoyable way.