What is the Difference Between Physical Fitness, Exercise, and Physical Activity?

Families, Food and Fitness November 14, 2012 Print Friendly and PDF

What is the Difference Between Physical Fitness, Exercise, and Physical Activity?

Health care professionals, the media and now the White House. Everywhere we turn today we hear how important exercise and physical activity are to long life and good health. But what exactly constitutes physical activity and exercise and what’s the difference between the two? Let’s take a closer look at how these terms relate to you and what you can do to improve your overall health no matter where you are on the fitness spectrum.


woman working out

Physical activity involves any bodily movement such as walking to and from work, taking the stairs instead of elevators and escalators, gardening, and doing household chores. For inactive people, there’s no doubt that increasing this sort of activity can reduce risk for disease and improve health.

Exercise, however, is a type of physical activity that requires planned, structured, and repetitive bodily movement with the intent of improving or maintaining your physical fitness level. Exercise can be accomplished through activities such as cycling, dancing, walking, swimming, yoga, working out at the gym, or running, just to name a few. Regular exercise, depending upon the kind, improves aerobic fitness, muscular strength, and flexibility.

Aerobic fitness is the ability of the body’s cardiovascular system to supply energy during continuous physical activities such as biking and running. Studies show that this type of exercise provides many health benefits such as decreasing risk for heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, type II diabetes and some cancers. The 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans state that most health benefits occur with at least 150 minutes/week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity. Examples of aerobic activities that would meet this recommendation include walking at a brisk pace, swimming, jogging, dancing, etc.

Muscular strength is the ability of the muscles to exert a force during an activity such as lifting weights. Muscle strengthening exercises involve using your muscles to work against a resistance such as your body weight, elastic bands or weights. The Physical Activity Guidelines recommend that adults participate in muscle strengthening exercises for all major muscles groups at least two days a week.

Bone strengthening exercise, or any weight-bearing activity that produces a force on the bone, is also important to overall health for children and adults. This force is usually produced by impact with the ground and results in bone growth in children and healthy maintenance of bone density in adults. Examples of bone strengthening activities include jumping, walking, jogging, and weight lifting exercises. As you can see, some exercises such as walking or jogging serve a dual purpose of strengthening our bones and our aerobic system.

Lastly, flexibility is the ability of the joints to move through a full range of motion. Stretching exercises can be an excellent way of increasing flexibility. While the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans do not include specific recommendations for increasing flexibility, some individuals such as dancers and some athletes may need to include flexibility activities as part of their exercise regimen.

The bottom line is that increasing your everyday physical activity and regularly participating in aerobic, muscle and bone strengthening exercises are all beneficial to your health and will improve your quality of life.

So what are you waiting for? It’s time to heed the advice and get active. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

If you’d like to know more about the benefits of starting an exercise program or just increasing your everyday physical activities, visit the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.




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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.