What “Counts”?

The other day I was going over a list of the different things I do to be “active,” like weight training, hot yoga, Iyengar yoga, some time on bike, and, I added, sometimes I go for a walk. The person I was talking to said, “walking doesn’t count unless you’re really out of shape and just starting out.”

At the other extreme is what I heard when I used to attend Weight Watchers (yes, I too had my stints and am even a lifetime member–that just means that at least once I managed to reach “goal” and stay there for at least six weeks). Of course, they are wild about tracking at Weight Watchers, and you record points for food AND for activity.

And we were told to count everything from yard work to washing windows.  Yes, running and swimming and cycling still counted, but if you were moving at all in a way that you normally wouldn’t, then it counted as activity and you could record points for it.

Now, I don’t track as a rule anyway, but I do have an idea in my head of a minimum amount of activity I’d like to do in a day. Roughly, I like to do at least one weight training or yoga session and at least one cardio type activity like running, riding my bike, spending a bit of time on the elliptical machine (that’s only in a pinch, in bad weather, or when I am into a really good book that I can’t put down–I read War and Peace one summer on a stationary bicycle at the Y).

But what about when I walk to the market and back (that’s a good 30 minutes), or even more, when I walk to work and back (that’s more like 70-80 minutes round trip)? It certainly tires me out, so if feels like it should “count.”

But when I use this kind of thing to replace an actual “session,” I feel like I’m cheating or getting away with something. For example, when I use the bike for commuting, I am sometimes hesitant to count it enough to replace an actual dedicated cardio session (even when endomondo tells me I’ve burned some extraordinary number of calories given the amount of enjoyment I got out of it!).

At WW, the number of activity points you could earn for an activity varied depending on the intensity with which you did the activity. So the more you exerted yourself and worked up a sweat, the more points you could earn for the time you spent doing that activity. This makes some sense.

But that brings me back to gardening. I’m sorry, but no matter how much I was urged to count stuff like that and no matter how much of a sweat I might work up out in the garden, it just doesn’t feel like it counts. Maybe it’s part of an active lifestyle, but it’s not what I think of as a workout.  As an aside, I should add that I enjoy everything I do as a “workout” activity a lot more than I ever liked gardening.

I’m sure there is a middle ground between “everything counts” and “it only counts if it’s a dedicated ‘fitness’ activity.” And I think it’s incredibly important to do things that I love and not to do things where my only reason for doing them is the contribution they might make to my fitness.

Maybe a good basic guideline for what counts is that it counts if it involves physical exertion, it’s not something that you always do (for example, if I walk to work every day, then it isn’t going to count because it’s not extra), it gets your heart rate up, you work up a sweat, and also I think you have to do it for a sustained period of time.

I guess that doesn’t rule out gardening, and maybe it ends up ruling out other things that should count.  But as a basic set of guidelines, it’s not a bad starting point.

About Tracy I

Writer, feminist, vegan, triathlete, sailor, philosopher, sometimes knitter.

10 thoughts on “What “Counts”?

  1. Becky baglieri says:

    Very well done Tracy. I always belived and have experienced that if you are active jogging, walking, gardening or even laundry. It is healthy for you I practice this actve routine I will be sixty in a few and still feel forty. You go girl! love ya..

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  2. josh says:

    1) If you are concerned that your walking nearly every day for longer than one hour does not ‘count,’ then experiment! Change for 2-3 months from walking (weight bearing activity) to bicycling (non-weight bearing, also an active mode of transportation). See how you feel one, two, and three months into the experiment. Whatever the result, I urge you to return to walking if only because it is weight bearing and weight bearing activity of all sorts is known to benefit the body.

    2) What is it that you are trying to count? It looks like you’re asking what is aerobic exercise in the form of a time-limited and agenda-scheduled workout. How I read the post, I see only factors of a something which is left undefined.

    3) How do you ‘count’ anaerobic activities? Unlike sustained (aerobic) activity, anaerobic effort taxes two additional energy systems in the body according to whether your efforts last either a few seconds or a few minutes. You can read about Energy Pathways for Exercise and view Energy Proportion Graphs to compare the energy requirements of some activities.)

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  3. Kathryn J Norlock says:

    This post was on my mind as I emptied the dishwasher, because isn’t ordinary activity a sunk cost? Dishes and laundry make a recurrent demand on me no matter my fitness, illness, or musculature. This is a reason to not-count housework, I’d think.

    What counts depends on the function that counting serves. Someone who tells you walking doesn’t count has their own aims in counting, and they might not be shared. So if what counts is a social function of other-recognition, then walking’s out, but if what counts is determined by my goal of alleviating my back pain, then today’s walk counted!

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  4. Sam B says:

    I think that’s right, Kate. What counts does depend on your baseline and why you’re tracking activity. It’s connected to the question you asked earlier about why runners always want to go further/get faster. As you get in shape, each session of say running 5 km, takes less effort. You get more efficient, you burn fewer calories. It’s the downside of running getting easier! Your eating patterns have come to depend on the higher amount and so you have a choice run further or run faster or eat less. (That’s not the only reason runners care about speed and distance. It’s a way to measure fitness too.) I track activity that needs to have an effect on what I eat. If I need to worry about supporting a particular activity by eating more, or eating well to recover, then I track it. I tend not to count walking or gardening or housework or my bike commute to work (though starting out, you should count your bike rides!) And in sports where I’ actively trying to get better I track what I do to see progress. Very interesting question!

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  5. Tracy I says:

    Great point that “what counts?” can’t be asked in a vacuum. Of course ti depends why you’re counting and what your goals are. And Samantha makes an excellent point about why improved fitness requires changing your goals (so yes, at some point I do need to try to go faster if I want my running to contribute to my fitness). I’m less convinced about the connection between “counting” and “tracking.” I can definitely think of something as making a contribution to my fitness goals without tracking it. At the same time, i can see how tracking it can help show progress. Thanks for your comments!

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  6. […] But if you had a hard time answering Tracy’s question when it comes to fitness activities, “What counts?” you’re probably a fellow integrationist. A.J. Jacobs, author of Drop Dead Healthy, is an […]

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  7. Hi there! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that would be ok. I’m
    absolutely enjoying your blog and look forward to new updates.

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  8. […] blogged about it of course. See In praise of everyday movement.) Tracy too has wondered What “Counts”? when it comes to […]

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