Exercise Terminology, The Need for Standardization of Terms

Exercise science is a field of study. This means that claims need to be backed up with research, and exercise terminology must be really precise so as not to cause confusion or inappropriate assumptions while scientists and medical professionals try to find the answers to how our bodies work. Much of the content and messaging you hear doesn’t come from exercise science, however–it comes from the marketing of the fitness industry. This industry isn’t regulated the way the medical profession is. Buns of Steel, 6 Minute Abs, Beach Body coaches and Tony Horton in the P90X videos aren’t required to give out fitness information that is accurate or scientifically meaningful. (See our posts on “core exercises” and “muscle confusion” for prime examples.) These businesses are developed to generate money at the expense of the ignorance of the general public. It is important to recognize when you’re getting health and fitness information from a lifestyle brand, and when you’re getting it from a qualified source.

One side effect of lifestyle brands pushing fitness information is that they use exercise terminology interchangeably, which gives people the impression that they are exercising when they’re not. For example, people often talk about taking walks and walking the dog as being good exercise, when in fact it is really just transportation or physical activityLet’s take a look at some common fitness terms that are often misunderstood, and give their scientific definition.

The Scientific Definition of Exercise Terminology

Movement is the most basic activity, broken down. When you go to physical therapy after an accident, your therapist and doctor will help you slowly readjust to normal activity by going through several basic movements. The goal, in most cases, is simply to restore your normal range of motioned and mobility, but you wouldn’t accurately call such a thing “exercise”. Movement is your ability to use your muscles and move your limbs, and activity is made up of many movements, but movement on its own isn’t exercise.
Activity is tied into fitness, but it isn’t the same thing as fitness, and it isn’t the same thing as exercise. For example, people with very low levels of daily activity tend to experience more health issues, like obesity and low muscle mass. But people with high levels of daily activity, such as waitresses and construction workers, don’t necessarily look like bodybuilders, and they aren’t necessarily extremely healthy or fit.
Walking is an activity, but it is not necessarily a good exercise. When you take a walk you might experience a slight elevation in heart rate for a short time, but you are unlikely to experience and overload, which is necessary to prompt physical change. A walk is certainly not doing anything bad for your body, but it is so inefficient in terms of making you stronger and more fit that it’s not a good candidate as “exercise”. You would need to walk awfully fast and for a long time in order to cause any beneficial adaptation in your body. However, if you are trying to increase your level of overall activity, then walking is a perfectly good option.
“The bodily state of being physiologically capable of handling challenges that exist above a resting threshold of activity.” (Body by Science, Doug McGuff, M.D. and John Little)
Fitness is your ability to perform the activities required in your daily life. Fitness does not imply being thin, and it does not imply being particularly muscular or strong. Fitness doesn’t even necessarily imply being healthy. In other words, fitness isn’t a look, and it’s not an overall state of health, but it’s a level of capability. People who are healthy enough and physiologically capable of performing tasks like walking up the stairs or picking up their child have attained a certain level of “fitness”. It is possible to look great in a bikini, but be so weak and malnourished that you can’t walk up the stairs without getting dizzy. That person would not be considered fit. Likewise, an offensive lineman in the NFL may be considered grossly obese my most standards, but is very fit to handle the activities of his sport and can perform everyday activities at a higher level than the average person.  Your fitness is your overall capability of performing work.
An example of recreation, but not necessarily exercise, would be something that you do mostly for fun and without a lot of physical rigor. For example, a pickup basketball game or a jogging around the park would be considered recreation, but not exercise. Recreation ceases to be exercise when it is not progressive in any way. If you only perform work to your current ability level, and never beyond, then you aren’t getting stronger.  If you were to do weightlifting and lift the same weight level for the same number of reps every week, then it isn’t exercise, it’s recreation–because you aren’t providing a stimulus to create and adapt response.
A sport is an activity and recreation, but that does not mean that it fits the definition of exercise. In fact, it is possible to play a sport, even a challenging sport, and not be exercising. An exercise is a deliberate activity that causes a beneficial physiological adaptation. That adaptation may happen during the course of practicing and conditioning for the sport, but it is not the main goal. It is also possible to experience no beneficial adaptation, or in worst case a harmful one due to overuse injury.

“A specific activity that stimulates a positive physiological adaptation that serves to enhance fitness and health and does not undermine the latter in the process of enhancing the former. (Body by Science, Doug McGuff, M.D. and John Little)

Let’s break this down a bit. Exercise is exercise when it stimulates a positive adaptation that enhances fitness and health, and does not undermine your health. So, taking a walk is activity, but is it exercise? Only if it creates a beneficial adaptation in your body, such as your muscles and/or cardiovascular system to getting stronger. For most people, taking a leisurely walk will not prompt much change or adaptation, because you are capable of walking at the pace and distance so a walk does not offer much challenge or stimulus.

Exercise also does not cause harm, which means that risky or repetitive activities do not fit under this definition of exercise, either. (Remember, exercise should never come with the expectation of getting hurt. Exercise injury isn’t normal, necessary, or acceptable.) For example, the pounding, jolting action of running and the repetitive movements in tennis are both known to commonly cause overuse injuries. High risk sports like CrossFit and rugby are also known to commonly cause injury, and so they also can’t be said to fit under this definition of exercise.


Please leave a response, we would love to start discussion on creating a standardization of exercise terminology.


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