“I need to exercise more…”

What is exercise? Might seem like a no brainer, but the answer is less straightforward than you might think…

As a fitness consultant, I find that words like “exercise” are used to mean different things by different people. Another example of this the phrase ‘getting back into shape’. Depending on the person, this could mean either building muscle mass, burning fat or increasing physical performance at a specific activity like weight lifting or running, or a combination of all of these things.

Because “getting into shape” is such a subjective idea, as a fitness professional, I would have to ask some more detailed questions to determine what the client is really after.

Now consider this phrase: “I need to exercise more”. As someone in the fitness industry, I hear these five words on an almost daily basis from different people, (often in the same tone of voice as confessing their sins to a priest). So this is a widely used term, but like getting into shape’, the term ‘exercise’ also can mean different things to different people.

This is mainly because the activities that people consider to be ‘exercise’ are so diverse. Swimming, tennis, track racing, sumo wrestling, yoga and body building are all considered exercise, but each of these can have very different effects on the body. And as I shall explain below, not all of these activities can actually be considered ‘exercise’ for a critical reason.

But first let me share with you the definition of exercise that I believe is the most useful.

From Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary:

exercise |ˈɛksəsʌɪz| noun
1 [ mass noun ] physical activity that is done in order to become stronger and healthier


Similarly to Webster’s definition, I define exercise as an activity that requires physical exertion with the objective of maintaining or improving health.

Exercise’s main objective is to improve your health. Exercise may also keep you motivated, make you sweat and even be fun. But none of these are the primary goal of exercise, they are just the effects That’s right, you read that correctly – the amount of sweat you produce from your sweat glands is not necessarily indicative how effectively you are exercising.

So if we adopt the definition of ‘exercise’ as an activity to promote health, then what about sports? Are sports considered exercise?

Yes and no.

Now I love sports. I got into this profession because of my love of playing sports. Sports are not only huge fun; if played intensively enough, many sports can change your body composition and improve your health immensely. That’s because all sports have some element of exercise built in to them. Most sports require a decent level of physical exertion – I say ‘most’ because there are some people who actually think throwing darts, or shooting pool are sports, but that’s an ENTIRELY different discussion…

marathon-498500_1280So all physical sports have some elements of exercise built in. But in order to judge whether any given sport is ‘exercise’, we need to dig a little bit further. Now there are several criteria we could use to measure how effective a sport is as an exercise, including the effect of the sport on cardio-respiratory conditioning, its ability to help you shed dangerous visceral fat, and the rate at which you acquire muscle mass during the sport, among other things.

But there is one critical dimension to whether a sport can be considered an exercise, which is: the risk of injury associated with the activity.

Think about it: what good as an exercise is a sport that gives you a back sprain that stops you from exercising for 2 weeks or more? It may seem like a no brainer to say that being injured is the direct opposite of being healthy. But the brutal truth (particularly for someone like me that loves sports and has endured several sports related injuries over the years) is that if the activity involves a high risk of injury, it is simply not effective exercise.

Exercise is to promote health – not to diminish health by getting injured. All sports have some amount of risk – some more than others. It is therefore paramount that if someone were to exercise for the sole purpose of improving health that they choose a type of exercise that not only helps them to ‘get into shape’, but also has the lowest risk of injury.

This is one reason why I find the personal training scene here in Shanghai so appalling. I’ve actually witnessed trainers texting on their phones while their clients are lifting weights overhead with terrible form, ruining their backs and on the verge of dropping the dumbbells on their own heads. Clients are paying good money to get healthy but instead risk achieving the exact opposite result because of a supposedly professional trainer committing gross malpractice.

So the next time someone tells you they need to exercise, ask them what their real intentions are. If it’s for the love of whatever the sport they choose, then ok. But choosing to play a sport assumes that you accept all the risks that go with that sport (hopefully they will know what those risks are!). However, if their goal is to be as healthy and fit as possible, then it only makes sense to choose an exercise activity that is effective, efficient, and safe!


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