What Does ‘Exercise’ Mean to You?

I recently wrote a piece about the difference in perception caused in most people when they hear ‘diet and exercise’ versus ‘nutrition and fitness.’  Just yesterday (as I write this) I was in my doctor’s office and was proud to see his reaction to the new fitness levels my wife and I are demonstrating thanks to our relatively new regimen of eating cleaner and training more. When he asked what we were doing, I carefully didn’t answer “diet and exercise” but HE used the word exercise in our conversation quite repeatedly. It made me wonder what people think when they hear the word ‘exercise’ because some seem so adverse to it. Some seem to think it means something tedious and unbearable. Some seem to think it means constantly repetitive and boring activity designed for very limited purposes. I decided to take a look at the word and how we use it and see what it really means.

“Exercise” as defined by Dictionary.com has the following meanings:

  • As a noun:
    • Bodily or mental exertion, especially for the sake of training or improvement of health
    • Something done or performed as a means of practice or training
    • A putting into action, use, operation, or effect
    • A written composition, musical piece, or artistic work executed for practice or to illustrate a particular aspect of technique
    • A religious observance or service
  • As a verb:
    • To put through exercises, or forms of practice or exertion, designed to train, develop, condition, or the like
    • To put into action, practice, or use
    • To use or display in one’s action or procedure
    • To make use of
    • To discharge or perform a function
    • To have as an effect
    • To worry; make uneasy; annoy
    • To go through exercises; take bodily exercise.

If you read through those, it seems obvious, especially thanks to that last item under ‘exercise’ as a verb, that any and all physical activity we perform to work our bodies is exercise. That means if you are performing strength training, cardiovascular training, flexibility training or any combination thereof, you’re exercising. Where does the challenge in usage come in then?

Allow me to share a recent conversation I had with a gentleman I consider a mentor who is certified as a personal trainer and as a nutritionist. I had shared a picture of a particular position used in the Beachbody LIIFT4 strength training and HIIT regimen. My friend saw this image and immediately commented, “That is not an exercise posture!” I didn’t understand his seeming objection to this position / particular exercise and explained what was going on in the image. He didn’t comment further on that image. Later, in a different conversation, I posted that my wife and I had just finished our fourth day of exercise in the same program and he commented that he only exercised once every eight to ten days and was accomplishing just as much as we were with a lot less work. He further stated that we must not be doing something as efficiently as he was. That particular comment made me think and I came to the realization that we were both using the word ‘exercise’ but attaching two entirely different meanings to it.

As we see in the definitions above, and as we all know but often don’t take into consideration as we use the word, ‘exercise’ can be a physical exertion to improve a skill or increase strength… or anything else physical related. It can also be mental as in “table top exercise” performed for the purpose of training or improving a planning process, etc. In the case of my friend, he was using ‘exercise’ to mean that block of physical training he undertook purely for the purpose of maintaining joint function, his current level of flexibility and muscle function. His attached goals focus on not letting age impact his daily function. He is not training to increase his strength, gain muscle mass, lose weight, etc. His is purely focused on maintenance.

For my wife and I, ‘exercise’ (at the moment) means a physical training regimen specifically designed to help us increase and strengthen muscle mass while lowering fat levels. If that ends up in a net weight reduction, then so be it, but weight loss is a secondary goal: increasing overall fitness and strength is the primary motivation.

Conversation with my friend revealed the differences in our usage of the term and we agreed that it is generically used far too often and that such undisciplined use can easily cause misunderstandings. Now I go back to my discussion with my doctor. When he asked about our ‘diet and exercise’ program I was careful to explain the current nutrition and fitness program we were using. As we move forward, the nutrition program will remain the same at its base, with some refinements made as we learn better what is most efficient for our bodies. The fitness regimen will change only in that, at some point, we’ll take the fat cutting focus out of it and hone in on strength, cardio and flexibility. At some point we’ll reach our goals for bodyfat content and start eating more for maintenance and less for weight loss.

Given all that… what does ‘exercise’ mean to you? The bigger question: do you do any?


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