Runner on snowy winter road with arms outstretched

You have a very good idea in your mind of what exercise is. It’s not rocket science, as they say, but it can be analyzed on such a level, if that floats your boat. But let’s keep it simple.

For many, exercise ranks in the same category as taking out the trash–something that you need to do on a regular basis, even though you don’t really want to, right?

Asking my friend Google about the definition of exercise results in the following response:

“Engage in physical activity to sustain or improve health and fitness; take exercise.
“she still exercised every day”
synonyms: work out, do exercises…”

By defining exercise based on how and why it works we can get a much better picture of what actually constitutes exercise.

Let’s consider it to be: The use of positive physical stressors on the body systems that results in increased strength and/or improved functioning.

(The specification of ‘positive’ stressors indicates those which would be considered safe and beneficial from the standpoint of intensity, technique, duration, etc.)

Now…let me underscore why this definition is important with a specific example.

If you are able to walk, by the definition above, you’re not really exercising by going for a walk. You certainly are burning more calories than if you were sitting, but since walking is something that your body is accustomed to, it is not being stressed by that activity to become stronger.

If you walk significantly faster and elevate your heart rate, or achieve the same result by walking up and down hills, your body is being challenged to become stronger. This is considered exercise. By doing this on a consistent basis you progress to a higher level of fitness. Got it?

Understanding this concept will clarify questions about your everyday activities. Is cleaning the house considered exercise? It would be if you do all the same activities in half the time. Otherwise, dusting the coffee table is better than sitting on the couch, but it simply isn’t exercise.

This critical concept is the cornerstone of all progress in fitness: 

Positive stress on the body systems makes them stronger and more efficient. If you progressively lift heavier weights, your muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments will strengthen. If you do nothing, no matter what your current physical condition is, your muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments will atrophy.

The same holds true for cardiac conditioning. Your heart will only strengthen if it is positively stressed through exercise to pump more blood.

Every system in the body responds this way, including the brain. Exercising the brain means using it in new and creative ways. The most significant exercises for your brain are learning a new language and learning to play a musical instrument. Amazing neuronal activity takes place when you engage your brain in these novel ways.

Focus your attention, as I have outlined, on what exercise really is and your methods and goals for becoming fit in will always be in focus. 

To Your Positive Stressors,

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About The Author

Steven Siemons ACSM CPT's picture

As a lifelong fitness enthusiast and armchair philosopher (BA in Social Science, UC Irvine), Steven communicates his passion for health and wellness with an offbeat slant. It's a lifestyle, he will insist; and fitness is really a journey to find what fits--for you. His personal fitness journey has primarily centered on resistance training for more than fifty years. An intense three-year exposure to Shotokan Karate under Sensei Ray Dalke and Sensei Edmond Otis in Southern California during his thirties (he is now 65, since you're wondering) had a significant impact on his appreciation for the martial arts as fitness disciplines. It is his sincere hope that you will find insight, inspiration, and knowledge from the ideas he sends your way. Find more of his work at The Senior Health and Fitness Blog.

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