Blog Fitness Physical Activity Vs. Exercise: What’s The Difference And Does It Matter?

Physical Activity Vs. Exercise: What’s The Difference And Does It Matter?

An active lifestyle can make the difference between a healthy, fulfilling life and a sedentary, unhealthy one. Beyond preventing chronic diseases and loss of mobility, regular movement provides psychological and social benefits (2).

But knowing what to do and how to incorporate it into your routine isn’t always straightforward. You may be wondering whether that casual stroll around the block will do anything meaningful for your health or whether you need sweat-inducing, heart-pounding sessions at the gym.

The truth is, any activity is better than none.

To help you maximize your efforts and achieve specific goals, here’s what you need to know about the distinct roles of physical activity and exercise.

Exercise vs Physical Activity: The Difference

The difference between exercise and physical activity is two-fold: intentionality and structure.


Exercise is a planned, structured, and purposeful physical activity that aims to improve or maintain one or more aspects of fitness.

Such activities are typically performed with the goal of maintaining or improving cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, flexibility, balance, and body composition (1). Examples include going for a run, attending a yoga class, lifting weights at the gym, or participating in a team sport.

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At the same time, physical activity refers to any movement of the body that requires energy expenditure. It encompasses all daily activities such as housework, gardening, walking to work, or taking the stairs rather than the elevator.

Unlike exercise, these activities don’t have a specific fitness goal in mind and are often performed for practical purposes or pleasure.


Exercise is generally structured to achieve specific training effects. This means it has a defined intensity, duration, frequency, and progression. For example, a beginner weightlifter may start with lighter weights and gradually increase the load as they become stronger.

In contrast, physical activity is often unstructured and performed in varying intensities and durations depending on the task at hand. For example, gardening may involve light to moderate-intensity movements, while running for the bus may be considered higher intensity.

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Is Physical Activity Better Than Exercise?

Physical activity and exercise are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they work together to provide numerous health benefits.

Physical activity helps reduce the risk of chronic diseases and improves overall well-being by keeping the body active and moving. It also provides social and psychological benefits, including reducing stress, improving mood, and promoting better sleep (3).

Exercise, on the other hand, allows for targeted improvements in fitness and physical performance. It can also provide additional benefits such as weight management and improving bone density (1).

Therefore, rather than seeing physical activity and exercise as two separate entities, it’s important to recognize the value of both and strive for a balance between the two.

Does it Matter Which One You Do?

Both exercise and physical activity have their unique benefits and play important roles in improving overall health and well-being. However, they differ in terms of their specific outcomes.

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Health Benefits

Physical activity is essential for maintaining basic physical functions and preventing sedentary-related diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Studies have shown that even low levels of physical activity can significantly reduce the risk of chronic diseases and increase life expectancy (3).

The benefits of physical activity include (3):

  • Improved cardiovascular health
  • Increased muscle strength and endurance
  • Better bone density
  • Enhanced balance and coordination
  • Weight management

At the same time, exercise provides additional benefits beyond those of physical activity alone. Think of it as a way to fine-tune your body and take it to the next level.

The benefits of exercise include (1):

  • Greater improvements in cardiovascular health
  • Increased muscle mass and strength
  • Improved flexibility and range of motion
  • Better overall physical fitness

physical activity vs exercise  

Psychological Benefits

Both exercise and physical activity can positively impact mental health by reducing stress, anxiety, and depression. Exercise, in particular, has been linked to improved cognitive function and enhanced mood. In addition, engaging in physical activity and exercise can provide a sense of accomplishment and boost self-esteem (5).

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Social Benefits

Physical activity and exercise also offer opportunities for social interactions, which can improve your social skills and feelings of belongingness. Joining a group fitness class or playing sports with friends can help combat feelings of isolation and loneliness (5).

Read more: How to Turn Exercise Motivation Into Real Actions?

How to Strike a Balance

Incorporating both exercise and physical activity into your daily routine is ideal for optimal health benefits. However, the amount and type of each will vary depending on individual goals and abilities.

For overall health, the World Health Organization recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week, or a combination of both. In addition, muscle-strengthening activities should be performed at least twice per week (4).

To achieve specific fitness goals, it’s important to consult a healthcare professional or certified trainer who can create a personalized exercise program tailored to your needs and abilities.

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It’s important to remember that any movement is better than no movement at all. By incorporating a combination of physical activity and exercise into your routine, you can reap the benefits of both for a healthier, happier life.

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physical activity vs exercise  


  • What isn’t considered exercise?

Activities that don’t require significant energy expenditure or have a structured purpose to improve fitness are not considered exercise. Examples include light household chores, leisurely walking, and sedentary activities such as watching TV or playing video games.

  • Is being active the same as exercising?

Being active refers to any movement of the body, while exercise is a more structured form of physical activity with specific goals in mind. 

Whether the two are the same depends on what exactly you’re doing and the intensity at which you’re doing it. For example, playing a game of basketball with friends can be both physically active and exercise if it’s done at a moderate to high-intensity level. 

Here are a few more examples:

  • Physical activity, not exercise: taking a leisurely walk around the neighborhood with no specific goal in mind.
  • Exercise, not physical activity: performing a structured weightlifting routine at the gym with the purpose of increasing muscle strength.
  • Both physical activity and exercise: participating in a fitness class that combines aerobic movements with muscle-strengthening exercises.
  • Does going to the gym count as exercise?

Going to the gym can count as exercise, but it depends on what you do while you’re there. Simply being at the gym doesn’t automatically mean you’re exercising. It’s important to have a structured workout plan and engage in activities that elevate your heart rate and challenge your muscles in order to qualify as exercise. 

However, even if you don’t have a specific workout planned, just being at the gym and moving your body can count as physical activity.

Check out our Should I Workout on an Empty Stomach article for more insight on exercising at the gym.

  • Can you be too physically active?

Yes, it’s possible to be too physically active. This may involve constantly pushing your body beyond its limits without proper rest and recovery, which can lead to burnout or injury. 

For example, someone who runs marathons every day without giving their body time to rest and repair could be considered to be too physically active. 

A more relatable scenario is someone who is always on the go, constantly running errands, and never taking breaks to rest. It’s important to listen to your body and balance physical activity with rest for optimal health.

Signs that you may be too physically active include:

  • Feeling fatigued or exhausted all the time
  • Constantly feeling sore and achy
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Increased irritability or mood swings
  • Persistent injuries or lack of progress in fitness goals
  • Feeling anxious or guilty when not engaging in physical activity

If you experience any of these symptoms, it may be helpful to reassess your level of physical activity and incorporate more rest and recovery into your routine.

  • Does walking count as being physically active?

Walking counts as being physically active, but the intensity and duration of your walk will determine the extent to which it contributes to your overall physical activity level. 

Walking at a moderate pace for 30 minutes or more can be considered aerobic physical activity, while leisurely strolls may not contribute much towards meeting recommended physical activity guidelines. However, any movement is better than no movement, so even a short walk can have some health benefits.

  • Is physical work as good as exercise?

Physical work can provide some of the same benefits as exercise, such as increased muscle strength and cardiovascular health. However, it may not be enough to fulfill all the requirements for optimal physical fitness as it’s generally done in short bursts without a specific purpose of improving fitness. 

In addition, some physical work may not involve a variety of movements that target different muscle groups, which is important for overall health. However, incorporating physical work into your daily routine can still contribute to a healthier lifestyle. 

Check out this article: Yoga After Eating.

The Bottom Line

Physical activity and exercise are often used interchangeably, but they have distinct differences in terms of intentionality and structure. Both offer unique benefits and play essential roles in improving overall health and well-being. Striking a balance between the two is the key to achieving optimal results. It’s best to get moving, whether through planned exercise or daily physical activity, and enjoy all the incredible benefits for your mind, body, and soul. 


This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!


  1. Benefits of Exercise (2017,
  2. Impact of Lifestyle on Health (2015,
  3. Physical activity for health (2022,
  5. Role of Physical Activity on Mental Health and Well-Being: A Review (2023,
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