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Separating “Exercise” and “Recreation”

I first read Ken Hutchins’ “Exercise vs. Recreation” article in 1996. I consider his ideas in this area to be some of the most important ideas in the history of exercise thought. They’ve certainly improved my quality of life significantly. And chances are you probably haven’t heard these ideas prior to reading this article. I hope the ideas benefit you as they have me.

In this context, “exercise” denotes activity that is performed to improve the body physically (increase strength, endurance, cardiovascular efficiency, help with fat loss, preserve or increase bone density and lean muscle tissue, etc). “Recreation,” on the other hand, refers to things that we do for fun and enjoyment (which are psychological purposes). In his essay on the subject, Ken identified 5 key differences between what appropriately qualifies as “Exercise” and what qualifies as “Recreation”:

Exercise is Logical. Recreation is Instinctive. Recreation is whatever you feel is fun for you (“instinctive”), whereas proper exercise results from a logical approach of looking at how to efficiently, effectively, and safely load the muscle and joint functions of the human body.

The principles of Exercise are Universal. Recreation is Personal. The muscle and joint functions of the human body are essentially the same for everybody, so the requirements for effectively loading the muscles to provide effective exercise is universal (applies to everybody). In a sense, effective exercise is the same for everybody. Recreation, on the other hand, is personal. What I like to do for fun may be very different from what you enjoy.

Exercise has General transfer to other activities, whereas Recreation is Specific. The benefits of exercise (stronger muscles, more endurance, better cardiovascular efficiency, etc.) will enhance your ability to perform any physical task (including running a race or carrying groceries from your car to your kitchen). Recreational skills are specific to that activity itself, and the motor skills learned from one task don’t transfer well to other activities (learning the skill of swinging a golf club will do little to enhance your bowling game, for example).

The purpose of Exercise is Physical. The purposes of Recreation are Mental. As discussed earlier, the fundamental purpose for exercise is to improve the body physically. Recreation is for fun, leisure, relaxation, etc. (i.e. mental and psychological reasons).

Proper Exercise is Not Fun. Recreation is Fun. Recreation had better be enjoyable for you – that’s the whole reason for doing it! Exercise, on the other hand, is all about loading the muscles of your body in a demanding manner, and that is not fun when you’re doing it effectively. (How much fun is that last, impossible repetition on the leg press?) The results and benefits of exercise are certainly fun, but if the process of exercising is fun, chances are it’s not challenging enough for the muscles to qualify as meaningful exercise.

So what are the practical implications of these ideas? Essentially it’s that only certain versions of strength training (including slow-motion strength training) qualify to be included under a useful concept for the word “exercise.” And it’s not useful to consider other activities as “exercise.” (That doesn’t mean other activities are “bad.” It just means they’re not useful for exercise.)

Significant problems often occur when people mistakenly confuse and mix exercise with recreation. As an example, before becoming more enlightened on this subject, years ago I played a lot of basketball both because it was fun and also because I thought it was good exercise. I now see that compared to the muscular loading generated through proper strength training, basketball provides haphazard, inefficient, and often low intensity muscular loading. As a result, basketball is comparatively ineffective for stimulating physical improvements in my body. Also, the high-force pounding my joints experienced from thousands of hours of running and jumping resulted in me starting to feel the effects of osteoarthritis in my knees at age 23 (much too young for somebody’s joints to start wearing out!). Instead of an improved body, basketball had given me the exact opposite result as far as my prematurely worn out knees were concerned.

I would’ve been better off if I’d separated exercise and recreation, stimulating change in my body from rational strength training, and only played basketball to the degree that it was fun for me (rather than thinking it was something good for me physically).

When I became convinced of Ken’s ideas on the subject and quit all the non-strength training activities I’d previously considered to be “exercise,” I didn’t get stronger or weaker, and I didn’t get leaner or fatter after ceasing those activities. The only difference was my knees started feeling better after eliminating the pounding they were taking from the jogging and other similar things I’d been doing. Exercise for me now is safer and more effective, and the things I do for recreation are more fun because I do them for fun and not because I feel like I need to do them for exercise.

My recommendation is to perform sensible strength training for exercise to improve your body physically, and then make great use of your fitter body to enjoy all of the other activities you like to do for recreation (whatever they may be, including swimming, basketball, running a marathon, badminton, etc.) If you mix exercise and recreation, exercise is less effective as well as more dangerous, and recreation is less enjoyable. Keep them separate, and I think you’ll be better off.