What Is The Difference Between Physical Activity And Exercise?

Written by Charushila Biswas
ISSA Certified Specialist in Fitness & Nutrition

Many of us often get confused between physical activity and exercise. Some even feel that staying physically active doesn’t warrant the need for regular exercise. But is that true? How does physically activity differ from exercise? What benefits do both have to offer? Here, we answer these queries and help you get started on the road to optimal health. Keep reading.

Physical Activity Vs. Exercise: What’s The Difference?

Physical Activity

Physical activity is any bodily movement produced by the contraction of skeletal muscles that expends energy. Physical activity may improve your health and reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease (1). Additionally, physical activity reduces the risk of premature death by many diseases (2). There are many different types of physical activities, like dancing, climbing stairs, doing household work, or gardening. You can choose any physical activity depending on your age, comfort, and availability of time.

The amount of energy required to accomplish any physical activity can be measured in kilocalories (3). Every activity you perform that results in a calorie-burn is termed as physical activity. The activities can vary from person to person and is highly associated with one’s occupation and age. Physical activity is also associated with improved mental health and well-being (4).

Regular physical activity may also boost one’s immune system (5). Such activity doesn’t always have to be planned, and often results in significant calorie expenditure. That said, it is not the same as exercise.


Exercise is mainly defined as training your body to improve its functions and gradually increase its fitness. Exercise needs to be planned and executed as a regime for visible results. It is a subcategory of physical activity that is planned, structured, repetitive, and purposefully focused on the improvement or maintenance of one or more components of physical fitness (6). Tasks regularly performed in a planned manner are termed exercises.

Anthony Puopolo, a Physician, says that physical activity is exactly the word it connotates: movement. Walking, standing up and sitting down, and regular day-to-day tasks can be called “physical activity.” Exercise, however, is something that produces an aerobic or anaerobic response. It places strain on your body so that your body heals itself and grows stronger. It also keeps your body running efficiently and maintains your health.

Both physical activity and exercise have proven benefits that are listed in the next section. Continue reading to know more.

7 Health Benefits Of Staying Physically Active And Exercising Regularly

1. May Reduce The Risk Of Cardiovascular Disease

Exercising and being physically active help improve cardiovascular health. Exercising regularly may reduce the risk factors that contribute to cardiovascular disease. These include body weight, blood pressure, LDL cholesterol, and insulin sensitivity. People diagnosed with heart disease reported an earlier return to work after participating in an exercise program. Significant improvements in self-confidence and reduction of stress and anxiety were also observed (7).

A single session of exercise improved myocardial contractility, which, in turn, promoted cardiovascular health (8). Physical activity can also improve endothelial function that plays a major role in heart health (9).

2. May Help Manage Hypertension

Hypertension may increase the risk of diabetes, may hurt vision, and is also related to obesity (10), (11), (12). Hypertension is also strongly associated with cardiovascular disease and mortality (13). Exercise has shown to effectively manage hypertension and reduce the associated risk factors (14).

3. May Help Manage Diabetes

A sedentary lifestyle is linked to type 2 diabetes (15). Physical activity can play a significant role in the prevention and management of diabetes, particularly in people who are obese or have impaired glucose tolerance.

Regular exercise was found to promote insulin sensitivity and cardiovascular fitness and muscle strength. However, the outcomes may vary depending on the type of diabetes. Hence, exercise regimes must be tailored to meet the goals of diabetes management (16).

4. May Promote Better sleep

Sleep deprivation is associated with many health conditions like obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, anxiety, and depression (17).

Studies show that exercise can serve as a means to improve sleep quality. The time of exercise is important for better sleep. In fact, exercising about an hour and a half before bedtime was found to increase the quality of sleep (18).

5. May Offer Many Pharmacological Benefits

Increased levels of physical activity and fitness were found to promote cognitive ability, body weight control, reduced triglyceride levels, and reduced abdominal adiposity (19). Including various forms of exercise and physical activity in your daily life can promote your overall health.

6. May Reduce Stress And Anxiety

Physical activity and exercise significantly reduce stress and anxiety, boost happy chemicals, and improve one’s self-confidence. Regular exercise may also help one manage their physical and mental stress. Exercise leads to the release of norepinephrine and dopamine, which are chemicals that help reduce stress and anxiety (20).

7. May Help Boost Memory

Regular exercise may also help boost one’s memory. Aerobic exercises specifically are proven to improve memory by increasing the size of the hippocampus. This is especially true in late adulthood where the hippocampus shrinks generally. Regular exercise also reduces the risk of cognitive impairment (21). Include aerobic exercises like swimming, cycling, and jumping rope at least thrice a week in your exercise regimen.

These are the many important benefits of physical activity and exercise. What could be challenging is sticking to a regular physical activity or exercise regimen. But worry not – we have listed a few tips in the next section that may help you start exercising and stick to the routine easily.

How To Start Being Physically Active And Exercise Regularly

  •  Always start with a short duration, be it physical activity or exercise. Starting with longer durations right away may make you feel drained out and lethargic.
  •  Start being physically active by taking stairs instead of elevators, taking short walks in between work, and walking while answering phone calls. These minimal efforts can give a boost to your exercise regimen.
  •  At the start of your exercise routine, choose only the workouts that you find comfortable. You may gradually challenge yourself with the other difficult workouts.
  •  Plan your day. This has a great impact on your exercise routine. It also helps you stick to your exercise routine.
  •  Stick to a healthy diet and increase your protein intake after consulting your doctor.
  •  Hydrate adequately to combat dehydration while exercising.
  •  Warm-up before every workout. It helps in maintaining sustainability.
  •  Stand while you work at least for 30 minutes a day.
  •  Clean your house thrice a week. This can be an effective physical activity.
  •  Start with basic yoga and increase the duration gradually.

Exercise and physical activity offer important benefits. But do not start any vigorous exercise right away. Always start slow. Speak to your doctor before starting any workouts.


Both exercise and physical activity may help promote overall health. Exercise may be termed as a subset of physical activity. But exercising for at least 15 to 20 minutes regularly, even if you are physically active, can offer you important long-term benefits. Combining both physical activity and exercise may promote longevity too. Start your exercise regimen today.


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  1. Long-term health benefits of physical activity – a systematic review of longitudinal studies
  2. Health benefits of physical activity: the evidence
  3. Physical activity exercise and physical fitness: definitions and distinctions for health-related research.
  4. Physical Activity Mental Health and Wellbeing of Irish Adolescents During Covid-19 Restrictions. A Re-Issue of the Physical Activity and Wellbeing Study (PAWS)
  5. Physical exercise as a tool to help the immune system against COVID-19: an integrative review of the current literature
  6. How is exercise different from physical activity? A concept analysis
  7. Exercise and Cardiovascular Health
  8. A single resistance exercise session improves myocardial contractility in spontaneously hypertensive rats
  9. The effect of physical exercise on endothelial function
  10. Diabetes and Hypertension: Is There a Common Metabolic Pathway?
  11. How does hypertension affect your eyes?
  12. Obesity-Induced Hypertension
  13. High Blood Pressure and All-Cause and Cardiovascular Disease Mortalities in Community-Dwelling Older Adults
  14. Exercise as a tool for hypertension and resistant hypertension management: current insights
  15. Sedentary behavior as a mediator of type 2 diabetes
  16. Physical Activity/Exercise and Diabetes: A Position Statement of the American Diabetes Association
  17. Extent and Health Consequences of Chronic Sleep Loss and Sleep Disorders
  18. Interrelationship between Sleep and Exercise: A Systematic Review
  19. Exercise acts as a drug; the pharmacological benefits of exercise
  20. Benefits need and importance of daily exercise
  21. Exercise training increases the size of the hippocampus and improves memory

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Charushila Biswas is a Senior Content Writer and an ISSA Certified Specialist in Fitness & Nutrition. She is an alumni of VIT University, Vellore and has worked on transgenic wheat as a part of her Masters dissertation from NRCPB (IARI), New Delhi. After completing her Masters, she developed a passion for nutrition and fitness, which are closely related to human psychology. This prompted her to author a review article in 2015. She has written over 200 articles on Fitness and Nutrition. In her leisure time, Charushila loves to cook and enjoys mobile photography.