Movement is not Exercise


Happy Monday everyone!  Today I’d like to address a topic that I think needs addressing—the difference between movement and exercise. Now, let me be clear about one thing right off the bat: I am not saying in any way that movement is useless and that it isn’t important. In fact, there are a lot of reasons to be active and mobile throughout your day, every day. Being sedentary all day at work is shown to be a really difficult lifestyle to overcome with exercise alone, and getting up regularly and moving your body has countless benefits to counteract that. However, to equate movement, or locomotion, to exercise is doing each a disservice; they are inherently different and do not equal one another.

Tracking movement, like counting your steps, can be a useful practice to implement in your day-to-day life. It improves blood circulation, increasing your body’s ability to recover, and overall keeps the body moving regularly which utilizes energy, effectively increasing your metabolic expenditure. This type of movement falls under the category of NEAT: non-exercise activity thermogenesis. Notice it’s called NON-exercise activity thermogenesis.

NEAT is inherently different than exercise, which I would define loosely as purposefully implementing a controlled stressor to elicit an adaptation in the body. Notice that I used the term ‘stressor.’ That’s important! In order to elicit an adaptation in the body, you have to subject it to a degree of stress. Too little stress = no adaptation. I’m glossing over recovery protocol here, because while that is very important, it’s not the purpose of this particular blog. The important takeaway here is that exercise needs to be—by definition—a stress on the body. Without the stress, there is no adaptation.

To cite a reputable source (don’t just take my word for it!), Cal Dietz and Ben Peterson write in Triphasic Training ‘If an athlete isn’t being physically stressed, you’re wasting your time.’

Now, before I scare everyone away, the term ‘stress’ is relative, and I am a huge proponent of ‘minimal effective dosing.’ (Coach note:  the aforementioned link isn’t the best source to cite, but it paints a pretty clear picture of my intent as I use the term).  Are the needs of a sedentary person coming off the couch for the first time the same as those needed by an established athlete? Absolutely not—it takes very little ‘stressor’ to elicit an adaptation in someone who essentially has a training age of zero. The more developed the athlete is, the more focused and planned those stressors need to be in order to get the required adaptations. Is it necessary, let alone a good idea, to crush that person who just came off the couch for the first time? Absolutely not! If they can get an adaptation from 25 good reps today, why in the hell would you make them do 150? Not only would you make them feel terrible, but you’d keep them from coming back to the gym for a week while they struggled to recover from such an exertion.

I think this is why I have a problem with people obsessively counting steps—the fitness industry has so many trends, and we tend to get tunnel vision every time something new comes out. While paying some degree of attention to NEAT is necessary, it doesn’t paint a complete picture, and I have observed that focusing on an incomplete picture is a disservice to progress. If taking a walk during your lunch break is the extent of your ‘exercise,’ I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you’re not exercising.

Absolutely be aware of your relative level of activity that is NOT exercise—human beings weren’t meant to sit on our asses all day, every day. If counting steps helps you to regularly get up and move around, that is a GOOD thing, and I’m not suggesting to shame anyone for doing that. Just don’t count it as exercise, because—by definition—it’s not!

If you need assistance in developing an exercise, recovery, and nutrition program for you, contact me at and we can set you up with a coach to assess your individual needs.

Keep up the great work, everyone!

—Coach Phil

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