The content of this post is excerpted from my first book, Move More, Your Life Depends On It: Practical Tips to Add More Movement to Your Day.
What, exactly, is physical activity? Physical activity is any voluntary bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that requires energy expenditure. Physical activity encompasses all activities, at any intensity: both exercise and non-exercise activity.
Exercise is a subset of physical activity that is: planned, structured, repetitive, and for the purpose of conditioning the body.
It is safe to say that all exercise is movement, but not all movement is exercise. And that’s okay, because physical activity lies on a continuum, it’s not an all-or-nothing endeavour. I refer to this continuum as NEAT™ to Elite.
What’s the alternative to exercise? NEAT™, non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or incidental activity. NEAT is all the ways your body burns energy that is not eating, sleeping, or dedicated exercises. NEAT relates to moving about in daily life. These small, brief muscular movements are just as important as that gym workout in burning calories.
You need both exercise and non-exercise activity in your life, but it’s that non-exercise activity that we have lost in our daily lives. That movement has been replaced by appliances and apps—labour-saving devices that have robbed our bodies of the physical activity, or labour, that we used to do on a daily basis before the technological revolution made movement almost obsolete.
NEAT™ is different than your workout at the gym because it relates to moving about in daily life. Research suggests that light physical activity like NEAT™ is as beneficial to older adults and previously sedentary individuals as more vigorous exercise is for younger and more physically fit Canadians. Our grandparents’ generation didn’t need fancy gym equipment or flashy workout gear. Their lives required more movement than our current way of living. There were no labour-saving devices like garage door openers, TV remotes, and online shopping. They didn’t outsource physically demanding tasks like housework and snow shovelling. They just moved—a lot.
Looking at the other end of the physical activity continuum—i.e., vigorous exercise, or what I refer to as elite—tends to be associated with amateur and professional athletes. Even at the elite level, athletes are paying attention to the continuum of physical activity and adapting their training accordingly. They balance high intensity and lower intensity workouts on a daily basis; their “zero to 60” performance only kicks in at specific times. Only a small fraction of their training and competition time is spent at the high-performance level. Here’s how elite triathlete Patrick Smith explains it: “You have to find a balance. You can train at a nine or 10 but you have to be able to come back the next week, the next month, and stay injury-free.” They pace themselves, and so should you.
Our bodies need both exercise and non-exercise activity every single day. Physical activity at any intensity helps prevent and manage chronic health conditions like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some forms of cancer. It also improves your mental health, by curtailing symptoms of anxiety and depression, and improving overall well-being. Physical activity that is accumulated in sporadic bouts throughout the day still reduces the risk of early death.
Just because you can’t make it to the gym doesn’t mean you can’t be active. Rethink your activities: Go for a walk, play with your kids or grandkids, clean the house, or do some gardening. These are small steps that can lead to big change, because they get your body moving—to be physically active.
About Move More, Your Life Depends On It: Need help fitting physical activity into your daily routine? Learn how to embed healthy habits into each day and improve your overall wellbeing. If you like accessible convenience, approachable information, and making a change for the better, then you’ll love this handy guidebook. Order your copy today!
Amanda Sterczyk is an international author, Certified Personal Trainer (ACSM), an Exercise is Medicine Canada (EIMC) Fitness Professional, and a Certified Essentrics® Instructor.