More Exercise but Less Physical Activity

Two Women Sitting at a BarWhat is the difference between exercise and physical activity? Does it really matter? A recent review in Current Nutrition Reports suggests that this is a distinction that makes a difference.

Oxford tells us that exercise is “activity requiring physical effort, carried out to sustain or improve health and fitness.” But physical activity is “any form of body movement that has a significant metabolic demand.”

The difference deserves our attention because it seems that the more we exercise, the less we exert ourselves in physical activity through the rest of our lives. We have innate skill for conserving energy. More sitting tends to follow from more working out.

Non-Exercise Physical Activity

Julie Marvel Mansfeldt and Faidon Magkos conducted their review of 23 studies that assess the compensation for increased exercise with reductions in non-exercise physical activity. They found evidence that this indeed happens:

“In 67% of the studies, we can see that people cut back on physical activities in their daily lives as compensation for more training. This includes walking less, cycling less and taking an elevator instead of the stairs.

“The compensation can come from simply feeling more tired after a training session at the gym. But there is probably a psychological factor at play too, which is a kind of reward system that kicks in and makes us think we deserve to lie on the couch and skip the long walk with the dog, or take the car to the supermarket instead of cycling.”

Fitness Culture: Image and Reality

In popular culture, imagery and narratives would have us believe that we are all exercising all the time. Athleisure has taken over in fashion as a nod to these aspirations.

But as Tim Church and Corby Martin have reminded us, the proportion of people who routinely exercise has not changed much for decades. What has changed is the growth of occupations that keep us relatively inactive through our daily lives.

The net effect is less expenditure of energy in the whole of our daily lives and an increased risk for weight gain over time. We talk fitness and work sedentary.

So if we want to get serious about preventing obesity across the population, we will need to do more than rant about ultra-processed foods and urge people to get out and exercise. We will need to move away from sedentary occupations and communities that suppress routine physical activity. We seriously need to stop killing people who are physically active – pedestrians and cyclists.

Fitness imagery and fashion is not enough. We need more active lives.

Click here for the study by Mansfeldt and Magkos and here for further reporting on it. For perspective on building healthy, active communities, click here and here.

Two Women Sitting at a Bar, painting by Pablo Picasso / WikiArt

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November 24, 2023

2 Responses to “More Exercise but Less Physical Activity”

  1. November 24, 2023 at 11:03 am, John DiTraglia said:

    The only thing more obfuscated than counting calories ingested is counting calories burned.
    I do feel that spending time exercising is elitist. I try to to justify my liberal elitism by pointless yard work or pacing or running in the street to get somewhere not too far away.

  2. November 25, 2023 at 1:34 am, David Brown said:

    I’ve read numerous books about how nutrient intake and exercise affect metabolic and physiological health. One author noted that no animal deliberately exercises to improve its level of fitness. That said, this comment suggests that physical activity level has little to do with excess fat accumulation. Excerpt:

    “It is true that the vast advancement in technological developments has led to a reduction in physical activity worldwide, but as obesity now involves infants and the populations of developing countries, this obesity pandemic cannot be attributed to this alone. In addition, laboratory and other domesticated animals have also been subject to the increased prevalence of obesity, despite having largely unchanged living conditions for many years.”