Physical activity, physical exercise and combating a sedentary lifestyle

Updated: Jul 12

Have you heard the phrase “sitting is the new smoking”? If you have, you most likely understand that having a sedentary lifestyle can lead to some pretty serious adverse health effects. But what is a sedentary lifestyle and what contributes to this type of lifestyle?


A sedentary lifestyle involves little or no physical activity for much of the day. A person living a sedentary lifestyle is often sitting or lying down while engaged in an activity like socializing, watching television, playing video games, reading or using a mobile phone/computer. A sedentary lifestyle can contribute to ill health and can contribute to many preventable causes of death(1).



The key part of this definition is for much of the day. If you spend the majority of your day sitting or lying down, then you are likely leading a sedentary lifestyle. Some articles suggest that even being sedentary for 6 hours or more can be considered a sedentary lifestyle(2).


Physical activity and more importantly physical exercise are the main weapons we have when it comes to combating a sedentary lifestyle.


Did you know there is a difference between physical activity and exercise? These words are often used interchangeably however they are different. While all exercise is classified as physical activity not all physical activity is exercise.


The World Health Organization defines physical activity as any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that requires energy expenditure. Physical activity refers to all movement including during leisure time, for transport to get to and from places, or as part of a person’s work(3).


Alternatively, exercise is defined as activity requiring physical effort carried out to sustain or improve health and fitness.


So, physical activity is what we do on a day to day basis of just moving our bodies. It requires movement, energy expenditure and muscle activity to accomplish. All three of those things are also true of physical exercise however the difference is with the intention. With exercise we perform it with the intention of improving our health and fitness.


Many may believe that physical activity in itself is enough to counteract a sedentary lifestyle however that may not be the case. Performing activities such as walking, gardening, going up/down stairs or cleaning the house are all great examples of ways to spend less time being sedentary but most are not enough to elicit a positive physiological response. They are not enough to increase our fitness levels. Exercise on the other hand is enough because it is more focused and demanding on the body.


Many governments around the world have created guidelines regarding physical activity and exercise because the benefits of same are widely accepted and recognized. For example, Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines recommend that adults aged 18 years and older should participate in at least 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity, every week. Make sure to do this in bouts of at least 10 minutes and include muscle and bone-strengthening activities 2 days per week.


It is important to note that in addition to the above guidelines of moderate-to-vigorous intensity activity, one should still try to remain as active as possible to reduce the amount of sedentary time they accumulate each day.


As an interesting side note, exercise is a relatively recent fabrication designed to get people moving with enough effort to improve our health and fitness levels. Since we live in a time where it is much more common for an individual to be sedentary at a desk job than it is for them to have a physically active job we invented organized exercise. The idea of exercise has only been around for a brief moment compared to our human history due to the fact that humans used to have a significantly more physically active lifestyle.


Living a more physically demanding lifestyle meant you did not need to set aside time every week to simulate activity. Walking, running, climbing, lifting, pushing, pulling and carrying are all things we have simulated in the realm of physical exercise to mimic daily activities humans used to perform. If you do these things repeatedly on your own, enough to sweat and increase your heart rate, then you do not need to set aside time every week for simulated activity because it will be incorporated in your everyday routine.



1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sedentary_lifestyle

2)https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/health/a31448807/what-is-sedentary-lifestyle/

3)World Health Organization Physical activity https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/physical-activity

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