Image of Dictionary Definition of Training
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /

I thought it was about time I properly outlined my definitions of exercise, training and activity.

I think it is important to differentiate between the three terms, as they do all have significant differences, although they are often banded about interchangeably.

Of course, I am guilty of that myself – the page “Train” on this website, under my definitions should more accurately be labelled “Exercise”, but I just found it a little too clunky, and, as we shall see, there is a fair bit of cross over between the two… Confused? You will be!

Let’s start with my basic definitions, and then explore where it all gets rather muddled.


Exercise is movement done with the specific and only purpose of producing physiological/metabolic changes in the body intended to result in improved physique, health and/or longevity.

It is not done for fun, to improve physical performance, or any other reasons.

It is my opinion that exercise should be brief, safe and efficient.


Activity is any form of movement done with a specific purpose other than, or in addtion to, improved physique, health and longevity.

Walking to the shops, climbing a tree, playing a sport, doing the garden – I would class all of these as activities.

Many activities can have a positive impact upon your physique, health and longevity, this is largely a side effect however, and it is rarely the most time effective or efficient way to achieve these results. Further to this, many activities, particularly if performed to excess, can actually have a detrimental effect on physique, health and longevity.


Training is the specific and repeated practice of a particular activity, or element therein, intended to result in improved performance and/or efficiency.

Training adaptations can be physiological – i.e. increased muscle, more mitochondria, reduced/increased bodyweight, etc, and neurological – i.e. better technique, increased efficiency of movement.

As with activity, in some cases, training can potentially have beneficial effects in terms of physique, health and/or longevity, but equally, sometimes it can also have the reverse effect, having a negative impact on any or all three areas.

Why differentiate?

I believe that the distinctions between these terms is important, in order that you are sure you are getting what you are expecting out of any given physical endeavour you undertake.

Many activities can have pretty significant beneficial exercise like effects on health, physique and longevity, however they are never going to be as safe, efficient or effective as an intelligently programmed specific exercise routine.

If the participant really enjoys that activity, or benefits from it in some other way, and would therefore do it anyway, regardless of the exercise like effects, this is not an issue. In fact, it may well be a more efficient way to get your exercise effects, and could even replace a dedicated exercise routine.

Problems occur when an individual participates in an activity purely to achieve an exercise benefit, even though they do not enjoy it, or get any other benefit. This is compounded when the activity choice is extremely misguided and may in fact actually be bad for their health!

A prime example is running. I love to run – I think it is a potentially highly rewarding activity, particularly when done outdoors on mountain trails in beautiful surroundings. It is not, however, necessarily a good choice for an overweight, out of condition individual looking to lose weight and improve their fitness.

For the average out of condition individual, who is carrying excess body-fat and has limited mobility, trying to run is going to be very hard work, likely quite painful, and liable to result in some kind of injury. A much better option would be to do plenty of walking, some HIT strength training on resistance machines, and some HIIT intervals on the stationary bike.

This coupled with some sensible nutrition will help them shed the excess body-fat, improve their joint function, strength and metabolic fitness. Running will now be one of endless potential activities that they can participate in and enjoy, which can help maintain and augment their new found health and fitness.

It’s not what you do, but how you do it

The Barbell Bench Press is one of the most popular weight room “exercises” – but is this the right term?

The barbell bench press can most certainly be performed as an exercise – i.e. with the sole purpose of producing a physical adaptation in the musculature of the chest and arms.

If this is the sole aim, however, it is best done with a light weight, performing slow, controlled repetitions to failure with a spotter.

Even then, the straight bar is quite hard on the shoulders, and I would personally recommend dumbbells, or even better use a chest press machine or perform press ups instead. These will provide the same exercise benefits, with less joint stress or injury risk.

I’ve written before however, that there can be other benefits gleaned from bench pressing a barbell than building muscle alone.

The question “How much do you bench?” can be heard echoing around gymnasiums across the world (as can the pre-qualified and exaggerated responses), and for many this arbitrary movement has become the modern equivalent of a rite of passage into manhood, to replace killing a boar with your bear hands or jumping a herd of cows.

Attempting to lift as much weight as possible, either in the gym, or within the setting of an official competition, changes the bench press from an exercise to an activity. When practising the bench press in-between competitions/1 RM tests, performing the movement becomes training.

Done on a regular basis, this activity/training will produce muscular adaptation, but as you’ll be lifting fast, for low reps, primarily fatiguing the fast twitch fibres, it may not produce as much hypertrophy. You’ll also want to avoid failure, and focus on technique, which will shift adaptations to the neurological side, further reducing the potential for physical changes in the tissue.

Bench pressing for maximum 1 rep max strength is not only less efficient for producing muscle growth, but also comes at higher risk. Shoulder injuries are common place, as are accidents of a more serious (or humorous?) nature.

This does not mean that I think people shouldn’t bench press. Train sensibly, following a good plan, and with a good spotter (or better yet a rack with safety bars) and it can be a highly rewarding experience.

It may not be as safe and efficient as a chest press, but you can still build more than enough muscle if you stick at it, it can be highly rewarding when you hit a new PR, and I have no problem with some calculated risk, providing you are aware of it and consciously decide to accept it.

A slight proviso I might add however, is that to maximise continued success, enjoyment and avoidance of injury, one should disassociate from the extrinsic goal of lifting X amount of weight or comparing your results to others. Let auto-regulation be your guide – stop when your body tells you, not your ego. Be amazed at the way in which your body adapts to the stresses imposed upon it and grows stronger, but don’t let your sense of self worth or happiness ride on moving a hunk of metal a few inches for no good reason!

These same principles should apply for any physical activity:

1) Do it because you enjoy it or it has practical benefit.

Run because you love the way it makes you feel free and in touch with nature, cycle to the shops rather than drive because it saves you time and money and is less stressful, dig the garden because it’s relaxing and you get cheap, tasty vegetables.

2) If it has an exercise like effect, this should be viewed as an added bonus, not a primary motivating factor.

If you don’t enjoy something, don’t force yourself to do it because you think it’s good for you. A few brief sessions per week of HIT/HIIT will keep chronic disease and ageing at bay in a fraction of the time.

3) Be aware of the risks.

Cycling to work is great for your health, until you get hit by a bus…

4) Love the journey, not the destination.

Get too fixated on an extrinsic goal such as reaching the top of a climb, lifting a benchmark weight, running a certain distance/time, and you can mar the true enjoyment of simply being in the moment and experiencing the pure joy of movement.

Whatever you choose to do, be it exercise, activity or training, or a combination of all three, think about why you’re doing it, assess whether it meets those criteria, be in the moment while you’re doing it, and above all, enjoy it!

4 thoughts on “My Definition – Exercise, Training and Activity”

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