Evolution of Exercise
Why we evolved to avoid working out.
There is this image in popular culture of prehistoric people. They’re portrayed as strong fighters with heavily muscled bodies using weapons to hunt animals for food. When we compare ourselves to these mythical ancestors, we picture them as natural superathletes that are never lazy, untainted by modern indulgences.
Meanwhile, our lives are spent sitting at work, in a vehicle or on a couch at home. We end the day by crawling into a bed and resting for several hours more. We’re told exercise is good for us. We feel guilt and anxiety when we don’t exercise. But most people can’t motivate themselves to do anything about it.
The fact is, we were not built to exercise. Our ancestors moved and got exercise for one of two reasons.
First, Survival: they were forced to move to gather food, water or seek shelter and safety. For most of human history, our ancestors didn’t have homes that protected them and convenience stores that were open 24-hours a day selling calorie-dense foods. Movement was necessary to survive.
Second, Fun: they were moving for enjoyment or social reasons. Playing, dancing or sex was typical, but nobody jumped on a treadmill for a bit of cardio.
Moving for no reason meant burning up calories that were hard to come by. A pound of muscle burns about a third more calories than a pound of fat. A heavily muscled hunter-gatherer would have to spend much more time looking for food than his or her leaner counterparts. You were less likely to survive if you needlessly wasted calories on bodybuilding.
So the question is, what did our ancestors do? How much did they sit, walk and run everyday, and how can we use that information to figure out what we should do?
In 1979 the anthropologist Richard B. Lee shared his research on San hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari. He found that the San spend an average of two to three hours a day foraging for food. In the years since that study, other hunter-gatherer populations have been studied with similar results.
Groups like the Tsimane in the Amazon rain forest are physically active for four to seven hours a day, but men only pursue vigorous tasks for seventy-two minutes of that time. Women engaged in almost no vigorous activity at all.
That leads us to our modern-day dilemma. Two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, and the numbers are getting worse. The type of work we do, labor-saving devices and ever-increasing entertainment options conspire to keep us immobile.
Meanwhile, the two things that would get us to move more aren’t happening. We no longer have to move to survive because things are so convenient. There are also many more fun distractions that don’t involve moving, versus distractions that do.
There’s a rather insightful new book on this problem written by Daniel Lieberman. It’s called “Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding.”
Here’s one of the more remarkable things Mr. Lieberman points out. “...typical hunter-gatherers are about as physically active as Americans or Europeans who include about an hour of exercise in their daily routine.” In other words, if you just took an hour or two out of the 24 hours you get in a day, you would be “as physically active as a hunter-gatherer. Even so, few Americans or Europeans currently manage to achieve those modest levels of activity.”
Rather than consider yourself lazy, you’re doing what helped humans survive for thousands of years. To make a change, you have to work around your genetic programming. There are two common ways of doing that.
First, use your survival to motivate you.
Look at what could happen if you don’t exercise and face your mortality. Regular exercise lowers your chances of developing Alzheimer’s, heart disease and cancer. You’re more likely to live longer and stay healthier as you age. Engaging in just 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week can lower your chances of dying prematurely by 50 percent.
Second, make exercising an easier social option than not exercising.
Arrange to meet a buddy for regular workouts, so someone else depends on you to show up. Hire a trainer or join a class to be motivated by something other than your own willpower. Announce a goal that requires you to post updates regularly. Use external social motivators to keep you engaged until it becomes a habit.
What motivates other people may not work for you. If you fail, try a different approach. Keep trying until you find what does work.
Mr. Lieberman sums it all nicely in his book. “Make exercise necessary and fun. Do mostly cardio, but also some weights. Some is better than none. Keep it up as you age.”
Pick up the book “Exercised” by Daniel Lieberman on Amazon.com for many more insights. This is not an affiliate link and we receive no money if you purchase this book.
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