I Need You to Know: You Don’t Have to Work Out to Be Active

We need to redefine how we think about physical activity.

I grew up very, very active.

Anything that my school offered, I played: volleyball, basketball, soccer, I threw discus, and shotput. I was on the curling team. When I wasn’t doing team sports, I was outdoors with my family. I participated in Junior Forest Wardens and in the summers, I would head up to Lasqueti Island to visit my grandparents. They lived on the ocean, so we were always in the water, swimming, and picking clams on the beach.

But when I graduated high school, I went from being super into sports and active, to being completely cut off from organized recreation. I was taking a semester off, so I didn’t have the same access to team sports and with all my friends away at university, I didn’t have anyone to explore the outdoors with either. That was when my mental health began to tank.

My experience is not unique. According to research from Canadian Women and Sport, up to 62 percent of girls 13-18 are not participating in any kind of sport at all and that number drops in adulthood. This could be because of low confidence, perceived lack of skill, or not feeling welcome. There are a whole group of young women who, for whatever reason, are not into sports—and our physical education programs don’t provide enough options. It can also be difficult, as I experienced, to continue with the activities we’re taught after high school. So, we see this massive drop-off where only 18 percent of women between the ages of 16 and 63 stay involved in sports.

When I ultimately did go to university, I studied recreation and I realized our physical education is all about sports or developing related skills. Physical activity tends to be about a goal. It’s about burning calories or achieving a certain heart rate. But I want people to know that physical activity doesn’t have to be organized, and it definitely doesn’t have to be sports.

When I think about physical activity, I think of a wide variety of ways to move your body. Taking a dog for a walk or strolling on the beach and picking up shells are just as much physical activity as training for a marathon. When the augmented reality video game Pokémon Go came out in 2016, it motivated individuals who might never have thought of themselves as athletic to spend time running around outside. There’s even some research that recognizes the benefits of daily tasks like washing windows or vacuuming. I’m not someone who enjoys vacuuming, but the point is that we need to broaden our approach to fitness and wellness.

Activities taught in traditional physical education, such as team-based sports or working out at the gym, were the sectors that were hardest hit and shut down the longest in the pandemic. So that caused potential mental and physical health challenges for people who relied on those facilities as their primary means of physical activity.

During the pandemic, we also saw an explosion in outdoor recreation. Canadians spent time walking, hiking, and camping, in part because public health officials encouraged meeting outdoors to limit the spread of COVID-19. Simultaneously, there was an increase in search and rescue calls because not everyone has the skill set for outdoor leisure activities. It raises the question: While we are taught to play basketball and soccer, why is the same focus not applied to outdoor skills as part of physical recreation? The pandemic highlighted the need for options and education programs that look beyond sports and facility-based activities.

For the past year, I’ve been doing research on leisure activities in the Yukon in partnership with the World Leisure Centre of Excellence (WLCE) at Vancouver Island University and the Recreation and Parks Association of the Yukon (RPAY). I noticed that many survey participants who identified themselves as being “moderate” to “very active” didn’t do traditional sports. Instead, one of the top summer activities was berry picking—a form of exercise that would have never been on a traditional physical activity scale. RPAY also has an incredible initiative where they lend out winter equipment, like kicksleds, to help locals try new activities.

These preliminary results made me reflect on my own life and what being physically active really means. We have a sense of: “Oh I know I should be going to the gym, but I just can’t fit it in. I don’t have time, or I don’t have the energy after a full workday or taking care of the kids.” There’s also a performative aspect to how we work out, where we feel like we have to perform physical activity in a certain way, like going for a walk in leggings instead of jeans. But we could reframe physical activity to say, “Hey, I chased my 3-year-old around all day. I don’t need to go for a run, I already did that.” In addition to adult soccer and hockey leagues, we also need to have walking clubs and leisure activities. There are so many innovative ways that we can keep people moving without loading on expectations.

Now, I know there’s going to be people who will say that leisure activities don’t carry the same physical benefits as traditional exercise. My response to that while it may not get your heart rate to a particular level, these activities offer significant benefits, like time in nature and reducing stress. The debate around sports and access to fitness facilities is also a privileged debate. If you’re worried about where your food or rent is coming from, you’re not worrying about how much time you’ve logged at a gym.

By reframing our idea of physical activity, we can recognize that if you’re on your feet all day, walking to the bus or chasing your kid around the living room, that is still movement—and ultimately, movement—not calories or heart rate—is the goal.

Aggie Weighill is a Recreation and Tourism professor at Vancouver Island University (VIU).

Next: I Need You to Know—Fitness Is Not One Size Fits All