What is ‘Exercise’ Anyway?

New flat: work in progress!

Last weekend, we moved to a new flat. Anybody who’s moved will know that spending the whole day carrying belongings is exhausting. I was too tired to go to the gym, so technically I didn’t ‘work out’ that day. And yet, in one day I did 16,500 steps and also used my arm muscles a lot more than normal. So, does this count as exercise?

According to ‘science’, the answer is maybe. Official guidelines in the UK say that adults aged 19-64 should aim for:

  • 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity, such as cycling or fast walking, every week,
  • And strength exercises on two or more days that work all the major muscles.

And the NHS defines ‘moderate activity’ as anything that causes you to lose your breath or sweat. Under this definition, carrying light boxes, like I did at the weekend, probably doesn’t count as exercise.

I’m not sure I agree with this, for two reasons. First, these exercise targets need a fair amount of time that a lot of people don’t have. Taking half an hour to work out, and nothing else, might be difficult for people working long hours, parents, carers, or anyone who has a lot of demands on their (finite) attention.

Second, these recommendations make assumptions about people’s motivations to exercise and their lifestyle in general. When you click through to the NHS’ factsheet on the benefits of exercise, ‘maintaining a healthy weight’ is second on the list. Also, the recommendations assume that people spend all or most of the day sitting at a desk. In reality, a large number of people have active jobs where they are on their feet all day, such as construction or teaching. Some of these jobs would not raise your heart rate enough to count as exercise. Yet, this is a very different lifestyle from people with typical desk jobs. So should the guidelines treat these people the same?

An alternative might be to change the approach to the guideline. By including ‘light’ exercise, like going around the supermarket or gardening, they would be more inclusive and achievable for people with time constraints. They would also avoid making so many people feel as if they had ‘failed’.

But, if there is evidence that a certain amount of exercise, at a certain intensity, will have benefits for people regardless of their lifestyle, shouldn’t we be telling people this? This might empower people to make conscious choices about their lifestyle. It’s also absolutely better for people to have all available information about the impact of their choices.

On the other hand, guidelines and targets go against the idea of exercising for pleasure. Instead of introducing people to some of the other wonderful benefits of exercise, and supporting them to have enough time and resources, targets can instead feel quite arbitrary.

Public health marketing can include information about the scientific evidence of exercise’s health benefits. Wider public health policy can also break down barriers to exercise and help people experience its other benefits, like confidence and enjoyment. But this can happen without marking some people’s choices as ‘good’ and some as ‘bad’.


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