There are many different opinions about fitness and fat loss, but one of the more common viewpoints suggests that all you need to do is increase your activity level and/or decrease your caloric intake to be successful. While this may have some truth in theory, it does not always hold true in real life and it is certainly not the best strategy for improving long-term fitness and fat loss.
Note: For the sake of this article I will only discuss fitness and fat loss as it relates to activity level and I will not address anything related to nutrition or calorie intake. I will cover the calorie intake component of this viewpoint at a later time.
If you only take one thing away from this article, I want it to be that increasing your activity level and exercising are definitely not the same thing. While they are related, the difference between them is often the difference between success and failure when it comes to losing fat and improving your overall health and fitness.
Exercising is obviously a way to increase your activity level, but there are many ways to increase your activity level that should not be classified as exercise. Webster’s defines exercise as: bodily exertion for the sake of developing and maintaining physical fitness. The key point in this definition is that activity has to affect fitness to be considered exercise.
A good exercise program will always be designed to improve various aspects of fitness (strength, endurance, flexibility, etc.), as opposed to being designed just to burn calories. Having the goal to increase your activity level will increase the number of calories you burn, but it will not necessarily improve your fitness level. This is incredibly important, because increasing your fitness level is essential to long-term fat loss and improved health.
It is common to start a new program with the goal of increasing your activity level and burning more calories to lose weight, but this approach usually only results in short-term success. You may have experienced this at some point yourself, if you ever had initial improvements, which were followed by a lack of further results. Personally, I went through a period where I was doing cardio workouts once or even twice a day to increase my activity level and lose fat, but soon after I started, I stopped seeing any improvements whatsoever.
My problem was not that I needed to increase my activity level more, but rather I had to stop focusing on doing activities to burn calories and start exercising. In other words, I needed to perform activities that were designed to improve my fitness level and not just burn calories. There may not seem like a big difference between the two, but this small change in approach will lead to a huge improvement in results.
Let’s go back to the scenario where someone initially sees results by increasing their activity level. I would argue that, especially for people who have sedentary (non-active) lifestyles, the initial increase in activity should be considered exercise. If someone is out of shape, almost any type of activity will improve their fitness level. I believe it is the improvement in fitness level and not just the increase in activity level that ultimately is responsible for the initial positive results.
To further illustrate this point, let’s take a look at probably the most common scenario for increasing activity. Walking is a natural choice as a starting activity, because it is something people already know how to do, requires essentially no equipment (although appropriate shoes are recommended), and it can be done almost anywhere. For people who are not used to walking, it will be somewhat challenging at first, and their body will be forced to adapt to the new stimulus, thus improving their fitness level.
However, as the person’s fitness level improves, chances are they will not make changes to their walking routine. It is very common for people to walk the same distance and speed, often taking the same route whenever they walk. Over the course of time, what was once a challenging walk that stimulated improvements in health and fitness, becomes a walk that just burns calories. More importantly, when the walk stops being challenging, it is also the point when fat loss usually stops occurring.
Another important point is the more you perform an activity, the more efficient your body becomes at that activity. For example, take the person who goes for the same walk every day. After the initial fitness and fat loss improvement from starting the walking routine, not only will the walk stop being a challenge, but the amount of energy required to perform the walk will decrease as well. In other words, the same walk will result in fewer calories burned than when the person first started walking. This is another reason why walking or doing any activity just to burn some extra calories will not work in the long-run.
I should point out that I am not trying to say there aren’t any health benefits to increasing your activity level and if you are currently not very active, doing anything to become more active is a good thing. However, if you want to lose fat and improve your fitness over the long run, just increasing your activity level will not cut it. You need to exercise and challenge your body if you want to experience continued improvement over time.
One final note: Nutrition plays at least as big of a role as exercise in health, fitness, and fat loss. Even the best exercise program cannot make up for poor nutrition, but this article is only meant to address the activity level component of an overall health and fitness program.