“Physical fitness.” “Physical activity.” “Working out.” “Exercise.” “Training.” These are all terms that get haphazardly applied to the things we do when we intend to make some type of improvement in our body’s physical capacity. They all have separate and very specific meanings, and understanding them is important if you are to make the right choice about which one to apply to your situation.
“Physical activity” is a rather low standard to hold oneself to, since it merely means movement. Physical activity, according to the American Heart Association website, is defined as “anything that makes you move your body and burn calories.” The world is full of unhealthy people, some of whom are sedentary and some who move all day. Mere movement does not correlate with a significant improvement in physical capacity. It may be a step in the right direction, but a look at its specific recommendations indicates that any steps would be tiny ones.
“Physical Fitness” has a more specific definition. By Kilgore and Rippetoe in 2006 in the Journal of Exercise Physiology Online [9(1):1-10]:
“Possession of adequate levels of strength, endurance, and mobility to provide for successful participation in occupational effort, recreational pursuits, familial obligation, and that is consistent with a functional phenotypic expression of the human genotype.”
This is a description of what fitness entails, and describes a reason to be fit based on the genetics we possess. But it doesn’t say anything about how to accomplish this task, either the process or the components thereof.
Most people decide that the thing to do to get fit is something called “working out.” A “workout” is a term that refers to the period of time spent exercising — the exercise event. Us guys go to the gym for the purpose of “getting a workout” before we know much about it. To most of us guys, getting a workout means hitting the bag, running a few laps, getting sweaty, tired, and maybe doing arms a little. A few curls.
That makes “working out” the same thing as “exercise.” The term “exercise” best describes a physical activity performed for the sake of the effect it produces on your body today — right now — or immediately following the workout. If you’re just exercising, the workout itself is the point. Yoga, Pilates, cardio on the treadmill, a group class of any kind — basically punching your time card at the gym is “exercise.” For most people, “exercise” probably involves doing the same thing in the gym every time you go, because the effect is predictable. You want to get hot, sweaty, and tired, because it makes you feel that something positive has occurred. And it has. For many people, the acute effect of “exercise” is all that is necessary for an improvement in their physical wellbeing.
The modern fitness industry is built exclusively around the “exercise” model.