Are You Exercising or Training?

Time to Read: ~6 Minutes

Take Home Points:

  • The catch-all term "physical activity" is problematic as it encompasses extremely different types of activity.
  • Non-structured physical activity is a better term for recreational acitivity or activity nor performed with the intent to improve fitness.
  • Although significantly better than remaining sedentary, non-structured physical activity offers a low benefit to fitness.
  • Exercise is generally performed with the intent of improving or maintaining fitness and can offer increased benefits to fitness, but the results can vary wildly from minimal effects due to a lack of proper stimulus and negative effects due to excessive intensity, volume and frequency.
  • Training is a highly structured activity performed with the intent of improving one or more aspects of fitness.
  • Training offers the greatest benefit to fitness and should be used by everyone periodically over the course of their lives.



The terms physical activity, exercise and training get thrown around a lot, but their uses are not always consistent. This inconsistency of use makes it hard to assign value to the activities we choose as tools to improve our fitness. Since fitness is multi-faceted and requires optimization of both our health and resilience, the distinctions are important.

Although a particular activity may not always fall neatly into one of the above three categories, we can create definitions for those categories that emphasize major differences and better enable us to predict what benefit we can expect from different types of activities.


The Catch-All Term: Physical Activity

Physical Activity is the most problematic term as it is typically used to encompass everything. For example, the World Health Organization (WHO) defines physical activity as "any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that requires energy expenditure...all movement including during leisure time, for transport to get to and from places, or as part of a person’s work." With this definition, activities such as walking the dog, playing a sport, and conducting high intensity interval training (HIIT) in a 60 min class are all considered physical activity. However, the fitness benefits that arise from each of each of these activities are vastly different. It is therefore more useful to break this term down into three sub-categories: non-structured physical activity, exercise, and training.


Non-Structured Physical Activity

This category of activity includes anything you would do in normal daily life. Examples include getting up from the sofa, heading to another room, walking the dog, gardening, and various other activities that are not particularly strenuous. This category also includes activities that might require a bit more exertion like a 1 mile walk, a pick-up game of soccer or moving furniture.

The defining features of this type of activity are:

  1. No specific fitness goals in mind.
  2. Activities not chosen specifically to improve fitness.
  3. Intensity (how hard) of activities is low.
  4. Consistency in activity is low.
  5. Often no advance planning for when activity will take place.
  6. No long-term planning (for reaching goals).
  7. Low benefit to fitness.

    It is important to note that although non-structured physical activity gives the lowest benefit to fitness, the benefit can be quite significant when compared  individuals who have very low levels of physical activity in their daily lives. These sedentary individuals are known to have significantly worse disease outcomes when compared to individuals who regularly conduct even non-structured physical activity (PMIDs: 34284795, 34132511, 32345261, 33858013, 33551388 32418803).



    This category includes any kind of activity that is planned for improving or maintaining an aspect of fitness. Examples would be taking various swimming, cycling, HIIT or boxing classes several times a week, playing on a sport team, or lifting weights "by feel" in the gym every now and then. Generally speaking, when you are exercising there will be some consideration of volume (how much activity you do in each session), intensity (how hard the session is or how much weight is being lifted) and frequency (how often you do the sessions); at the very least you will be trying to "work harder" than normal.

    Nevertheless, although some consideration is given to these parameters, there will still be tremendous variability in what this actually looks like. Without any established goals or long-term structure, exercise can swing between the extremes of having minimal impact on your fitness due to inadequate stimulus (i.e., regular swimming will not effectively counteract the bone and muscle loss that happens during aging) and having a detrimental effect on your fitness due to having far too much volume, intensity, or frequency (i.e., taking hour long high intensity cardio classes multiple times per week can cause a reduction in muscle mass and strength). 

    The defining features of this type of activity are: 

    1. No specific fitness goals in mind.
    2. Activities not always chosen specifically to improve fitness.
    3. Intensity (how hard), volume (how much), and frequency (how often) may be too low or too high.
    4. Consistency in activity may range from low to high.
    5. Some advance planning for when activity will take place.
    6. No long-term planning (for reaching goals).
    7. Moderate benefit to fitness.

    It is actually a bit tricky to compile evidence that exercise is beneficial to human health because scientific studies are generally outcome/goal driven which means participants of a scientific study are actually training (see next section) and not just exercising. However, there are studies that analyze self-reported activity level data and these have shown that exercise (structured activities with higher levels of volume, intensity, and frequency) can improve mental health (30099000), improve inflammatory markers (34547405), increase bone mineral density (19909496), reduce predisposition to obesity (20824172), and can potentially reduced all-cause mortality (death) (34006506).



    This type of activity is completely intentional because you have a fitness goal in mind (e.g., to get stronger, to not be out of breath so easily, to be able to run a certain distance in a shorter time, to reduce body fat percentage, to prevent bone loss, to improve metabolic blood markers etc.). In training you are always considering what you are doing, how much you are doing, and when you are doing it. This type of activity requires a plan, the longer the better. This type of activity also requires consistency as each successive training session will build upon the prior sessions. Your level of exertion may vary day to day, week to week and month to month, but it will be intentionally suited towards reaching your goal.

    The defining features of this type of activity are:

    1. One or more specific fitness goals are chosen from the start.
    2. Activities are chosen specifically to improve fitness.
    3. Intensity (how hard), volume (how much) and frequency (how often) of activities are chosen appropriately to meet goals.
    4. Consistency in activity is high.
    5. Advance planning for when each activity will take place.
    6. Long-term planning (for reaching goals).
    7. High benefit to fitness.

    Evidence collected to date indicates a wealth of fitness improvements that can be obtained from training including improved blood pressure (33068100), improved memory function and cerebral blood flow (32310162), improved cardio respiratory fitness and triglyceride/cholesterol levels (33000332), improved bone density (31846824), and increased lean body mass (24276303).


    Final Thoughts

    In the exercise and training sections listed above, cited evidence indicates that engaging in both those activities can improve fitness outcomes. Given this, is training actually better than exercise? It would be very difficult to conduct a scientific study to test if one was better than the other because there would be tremendous variation in what exercisers would be doing and what fitness outcomes may result from that variation. Nevertheless, an examination of each modality independently, which has been done by both scientists and coaches over the years, indicates that participating in training yields the best improvement in fitness.

    As with all things in life, having a specific goal and taking measured actions in pursuit of that goal will yield better results than completing a variety of actions without any structure and merely hoping they will result in accomplishment. Just imagine if your goal was to write a book of poetry and your approach was to only write when you felt like it and the method was by varying the type of writing you did such that it was a mix of thank you notes, journaling, short stories, and poems. You might eventually finish a poetry book, but you might not. Either way your time was not as well spent as it could have been. Training requires a considerable amount of thoughtful input, but it gives the best results in the long run, so everyone should consider making training a part of their activity regimen periodically over the course of their life.


    To see how Science for Fitness can help you get started with training, book a free consultation HERE.