Exercise vs. Recreation Revisited

I found myself getting prepared for a client this morning, getting my points I wanted to make addressed, and I came across a post over at Steve’s “Diabetic Mediterranean Diet” blog that actually back-linked to an article posted at our website.

In this, Ken Hutchins talks about how exercise and recreation are not necessarily the same thing, which is then taken as semantics by a commenter. He believes a false dichotomy is being made…I beg to differ:

1. “Firstly – telling marathon runners, triathletes and the like that they are not exercising is a bit harsh.”

-This is not being said at all, however if they were attempting to exercise using these activities they’re being very inefficient. First, very few people pick up doing marathons or triathlons because they want to exercise: it’s the natural extension of something they enjoy doing to perform in events to see how one measures up against the competition. Games and play have built into them competition, from board games up to basketball. There is an exercise effect, make no mistake, but it is hugely inefficient. Here’s what I mean:

Suppose “A” represents effort toward an activity, “B” represents an exercise effect, so “C” would be the exercise effect that happens as a result of said activity. The above diagram would be accurate for a variety of sports, as much of what you’re doing in the activity has little to zero effect on exercise. For instance shooting a basketball is part of the sport but provides little in the way of exercise effect. The exercise happens to be a side effect, not the direct effect, of the activity being performed. If we were to put descriptive words in the bubbles for each “A” and “B”, the similarities listed under “C” would be few (golf) to many (triathlon).

Compare that to proper exercise, and the items listed under “A” would be identical (or nearly so) to the items listed under “B”, so “C” would take up the vast majority of the overlap of the Venn diagram. In other words, the activity is being done with the specific intent of maximizing the exercise effect with no wasted effort. It is not semantics but ensuring that everything you are doing is going to better the quality of the exercise effect. Everything you do in sport or play does not do this; it can’t nor should it.

I think this is where most athletes get hung up, taking an ego-driven bravado toward the statement. “How DARE they say I’m not exercising!” Well, you’re not: you’re playing football, basketball, running marathons etc. That is your primary focus, doing better at that. And doing better in that activity doesn’t necessarily improve your health or fitness but it might. For example my wife runs marathons and the last thing she’s thinking about while running the marathon is “Boy I’m getting a GREAT workout!” Her only goal and drive is to finish the marathon. To put it another way: how do you quantify an improved exercise stimulus from one game to the next of, say, basketball? More points? More rebounds? More time spent playing? The latter might also mean more standing around doing nothing while the former 2 are barely correlative.

To summarize, if you are doing something to exercise, every effort of that activity should be directed toward stimulating physiological outcomes of exercise. Sports by their very nature do not do this. Though they do have varying levels of exercise effect, the activity itself warrants skills and efforts toward a different outcome other than exercise.

2. “Mark Sisson he says you should “sprint” and “play” – but I would argue that both is exercise. Or rather – should be called ‘exercise’.”

- First let me note that Sisson himself in interviews conducted during the release of “The Primal Blueprint” discussed blowing out his knee playing Ultimate. Go ahead and ask Keith Norris how many soft tissue injuries he accrued during his years playing football at (what is now) Texas State University, or about the time he took a shot in the kidneys and his urine turned black. I can’t tell you how many bleeding wounds, twisted knees, shots to the balls, and sprained ankles I accrued during my years playing basketball. Take a look at the cover of every “Runner’s World” magazine and there’s  an article about dealing with injuries.

I point this out because athletes, by the very nature of what you’re attempting to do, stops being health-promoting at some level of competition. I’ll use Keith’s health/performance curve here:

As you see, the more athletics you get toward a performance goal, the greater the health consequences. People like to look at pro athletes as a model of health but in reality they’re: A) genetic freaks able to handle that workload… B) who are on the teetering edge of blowing apart due to the demands of their activity… C) and are held together by a team of doctors, trainers, and soft-tissue specialists. This is in large part because sports and athletics are “function follows form” activities. For instance, pitching a baseball is one of the most violent activities you can perform and it is absolutely biomechanically incongruent with shoulder function. This is also why baseball pitchers need so many days between starts to recover while softball pitchers, whose pitching motion is much more natural compared to how the shoulder functions most smoothly, can pitch so many games with relatively little rest.

If you are doing an activity for the sake of exercise, the risk of injury should be as close to nonexistent that anyone from a 10 year old to an 80 year old can perform the activity. This means that exercise should be a “form follows function” activity, taking how our body evolved to move, how our muscles are built to function and picking movements that are congruent with that. Exercise is a health-promoting activity that should improve your ability to participate in activities of play/recreation/leisure, which themselves have a continuum of injury potential. While you willingly accept that your play has an enhanced risk of injury, if your exercise has a high risk for injury you’re doing it wrong.

This is why, I think, people feel that exercise should get “easier” as we age. The aged and elderly do not recover from injury quickly and by avoiding “exercise” they take themselves out of harms way. See my article on exercise and longevity to see the inverse of this: doctors do not prescribe real exercise because of injury potential of many “exercise” modalities and the liability that comes with it. If you’ve set your exercise up correctly, it should be as near joint-stress neutral as exercise can be and you should be able to maintain it until you croak. I have personal experience with this: my mother could perform a high intensity training workout to momentary muscular fatigue 4 months before  she died. However,1 bout of “easy” yoga caused an injury in her back. I’ve done enough yoga to know that traditions set forth by old Indian wrestlers who didn’t have a clue about how the body works are much more likely to hurt you than recommendations from biomechanists regarding how to training in congruence with muscle and joint structure.

In summary: don’t injure yourself in the gym while trying to improve your health and resistance to injury. That way should you decide to take up an activity with an increased injury potential you’ll have enhanced resistance to injury and improved performance potential. And you can finally stop worrying about getting a good workout from something that should be fun.

3.  “What did tick me off when reading their post though was the hubris and negativity…”

It is only negative if you are offended by what is being said. So far every athlete I’ve spoken to doesn’t disagree with the spectrum of recreation to exercise and will fully agree with me when I then said “Therefore recreation is not exercise.” To flip it on its head: exercise isn’t recreational, not exclusively. In spite of what you see most people doing in the social club…er…health club, there are much better things, much more enjoyable things, I would rather do in the name of recreation than exercise. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy it, I do so much I’m getting a damned graduate degree on the subject and have only ever worked as an exercise clinician, but I’d really rather lay on the couch, play NBA 2k11, and get ripped.

Sometimes you cannot get a person’s attention without a negative tone. I hope the commenter calms down, gives this a read, and finds that the statement “Recreation is not exercise” is very accurate, even if his/her gut doesn’t like it at first.

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9 thoughts on “Exercise vs. Recreation Revisited

  1. That Ken Hutchins essay was an eye-opener for me.

    It’s somewhat liberating to give up the notion that exercise is supposed to be fun and recreational. If it is, that’s great, and icing on the cake. For a 57-year-old like me who wants to maintain strength, functionality, and injury resistance as I age, exercise is a chore that I just need to do Like flossing/brushing teeth, changing the oil in my car, and sleeping when I’d rather not.

    I’ve got my current exercise chore down to three hours a week, partly thanks to things I learned from Skyler at this site. No more sustained cardo for me, unless I’m doing it for fun.


  2. Great Article, Skyler. Properly conducted exercise cannot be fun and demands the utmost concentration and discipline from both trainer and trainee.

    Like how Mentzer once said you can either train intense or train long. The two do not coincide.

    That would sum it up and most athletes need to accept the fact that what they are doing is an activity towards a goal(winning) and not every activity is exercise though a little exercise results could be obtained from them. Nice explanation through the pie chart, Skyler.


    • If the coach is good and cares about not just achieving a good performance number (at the cost of your health), it could be an option. Remember, the competition element makes it “exercise as sport,” which introduces the same elements as athletics: your focus is on finishing, and finishing well, than doing it right.

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