We need to completely rethink the concept of movement, said Harvard biologist Daniel Lieberman.
Speaking to the Harvard Gazette, Lieberman said we need to recognize that people were never meant to be involved in sports in their spare time – and that is fundamentally wrong.
“We live in a world where everyone knows exercise is good for you, and yet the vast majority of people find it difficult,” Lieberman said naturally abnormal in the sense that we evolved not to to do.”
From an evolutionary biologist’s point of view, he said that our modern obsession with fitness doesn’t make sense.
“Humans evolved to move. We evolved to be physically active, ”said Lieberman. “But exercise is a special kind of physical activity. It is a voluntary physical activity in the interests of health and fitness. Until recently, nobody did that. In fact, it would be kind of a crazy thing because if you are a very active hunter-gatherer or a subsistence farmer, for example, there would be no point in spending extra energy on unnecessary five-mile jogging in the morning. “
That may be true of the Cro-Magnons. But even 5,000 years ago, sport became a hallmark of vanity alongside a facet of physical health. In ancient Greece, gymnastics was often as popular as music or art, and running was a huge part of their routine. However, this type of fun exercise dried up in the Middle Ages, as rampant poverty, famine, and disease were somewhat time-consuming.
But gymnastics became popular again in the 18th century, where its permutations and variations have remained as prominent methods for staying fit (namely, weight lifting, running, and so on). During times of war or emergency, sport can go out of style, but as societies urbanize and get rich it becomes a hobby rather than a necessity.
“Now we judge people as lazy when they are not exercising,” said Lieberman, adding that people who do not exercise are not lazy. “You’re just normal.”
What should sport actually be?
The idea that our ancestors didn’t play sports doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to stay healthy. Lieberman simply argued that we need to rethink the way we exercise and why we feel motivated to do so.
The first thing Lieberman recommended is to treat yourself kindly and not be mad at yourself for not wanting to exercise. It’s not in our DNA to want to train this way, he argued, that those instincts are legitimate.
“Learn to recognize these instincts so you can overcome them,” he said. “When I get up in the morning to go running … my brain often tells me all sorts of reasons why I should put it off. My point here is to have compassion for yourself and understand that those little voices in your head are normal. “
Next, Lieberman said, it’s important to remember that as humans we were active for two main reasons: when it was necessary and when it was socially rewarding.
“Most of our ancestors went hunting or gathering every day because otherwise they would starve,” he said. “The other times they were physically active to have fun like dancing or playing and doing sports. If we are to help ourselves exercise, we need to have the same mindset. Make it fun, but also make it necessary. “
Lieberman’s last piece of advice was that you shouldn’t worry about how much time or how much exercise you need, just that you are doing something, no matter how small it is.
“There’s a myth that we evolved to be active all the time, running marathons, and being massive enough that we could lift huge rocks with ease,” he said. “The truth is far from it. Our ancestors were sensible, but not overly active and strong. ”
So that should be the goal: sensible, but not excessive.
“Dose-response curves show that just 150 minutes of exercise a week – just 21 minutes a day – cuts the death rate by about 50 percent,” said Lieberman. “Knowing this can, in my opinion, help people feel better if they just do a little exercise instead of none.”
Take that away
There is a pattern of people who engage in more elective forms of physical activity during good physical activity and have difficulty maintaining physical activity that is not directly related to survival when things are bad. But just as we have a slightly larger brain than our ancestors, our bodies may have evolved in a similar way.
There isn’t a secret code in your DNA that tells you you don’t want to exercise – maybe you just are. You should still be sympathetic to yourself if you don’t want to exercise. Just accept the fact that for some emotional, physical, or environmental reason you may not want to exercise that day.