Physical activity is defined as “any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that results in energy expenditure”. Physical activity is non-formal, spontaneous, and a by-product of behaving like a healthy human being (see my article on Homo Sapiens for more on what it means to behave like a human being). Exercise, on the other hand, has a more boring definition: “exercise is a subset of physical activity that is planned, structured, repetitive, and has a final or an intermediate objective for the improvement or maintenance of physical fitness”. It is the formal version of physical activity that is done as a means to an end. And while exercise is necessary for professional athletes who need big gains in physical performance, it may not be the best form of health maintenance for the average Joe or Jane striving to look and feel better. In this article, we will discuss two reasons why fun and enjoyable physical activity, or play, may be better suited for regular people who would prefer improvements in their blood pressure and happiness, rather than in their 100m dash times.
Reason #1: Exercise Can Easily Be Used as a Tool for Self-Punishment
Exercise is not meant to be used as a compensatory tool for overeating. It is not meant to be self-flagellation due to feelings of low self-worth. And on the same note, an individual’s self-esteem should not be based off of whether or not he or she exercised on a given day. When exercise is used as a means to an end – to burn calories as an example, it can only lead to negative health consequences. Mentally, it can cause a person to develop an unhealthy obsession over exercise (e.g. Bulimia Nervosa). Physically, it can cause Relative Energy Deficiency, an umbrella term used to describe any and all ailments stemming from over-exercising and under-eating (e.g. amenorrhea). Overall, while exercise may be useful in many situations, it can easily become a tool for self-harm.
Reason #2: Intrinsic Motivation is the Most Robust Form of Motivation
Intrinsic motivation is “playful activity that has an internal locus of perceived causality”. It is fully autonomous, self-selected behaviour that is done purely for enjoyment, rather than as a means to an end. For example, deciding to go on a bike ride on a sunny day is self-selected behaviour that is done purely for enjoyment. It still improves cardiorespiratory function, and it still builds muscular endurance… but it is PLAY! On the other hand, forcing yourself to ride a stationary bike and following a workout program that you don’t particularly enjoy is an example of exercise in its worst form. Play is always intrinsically motivated and takes no effort to follow through on, while exercise is externally prescriptive and needs motivation and discipline to follow through on. Again, exercise is awesome in many contexts, but play is undoubtedly an easier form of physical practice to maintain over the long haul.
In summary, exercise is useful for systematically improving physical fitness, but play is better suited for improving mental health and maintaining long-term physical activity adherence. Exercise is imperative for improving specific aspects of physical fitness (e.g. cardiorespiratory function, mobility). Play makes you happier, healthier, and less averse to getting up and moving around. And while this article was very much biased towards play, in reality you need both exercise and play to be a high-functioning human being. My hope was that this short discussion changed your perspective on health maintenance. Nowadays in a culture where doctors are telling you that you need to exercise, and health campaigns are telling you that you need to get 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity movement per week, we must not forget that physical activity can and should be FUN. So get out there and play yourself to better health! And as always, if you’d like to know more about, and start taking responsibility for your own health, fitness, and wellness, please reach out to Crux Fitness Richmond for any of your personal training needs.
Personal Training and Wellness Advice from Crux Fitness – The Argument for Play Instead of Exercise
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Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum.
Herculano-Houzel, S. (2010). Coordinated scaling of cortical and cerebellar numbers of neurons. Frontiers in Neuroanatomy, 4(12).
Mountjoy, M., Sundgot-Borgen, J., Burke, L., Carter, S., Constantini, N., Lebrun, C., Meyer, N., Sherman, R., Steffen, K., Budgett, R., & Ljungqvist, A. (2014). The IOC consensus statement: Beyond the Female Athelte Triad – Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S). British Journal of Sports Medicine, 48(7), 491-497.