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Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding

By Daniel E. Lieberman
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Exercised by Daniel E. Lieberman

Exercised (2020) is a cutting-edge account of physical activity, rest, and human health. Drawing on groundbreaking research in the fields of exercise science, evolutionary theory, and anthropology, it presents a unique account of the human body’s needs and abilities.

Key idea 1 of 8

We didn’t evolve to exercise.

When you imagine our early human ancestors, you probably envision them in motion. Whether they’re hunting animals, navigating harsh landscapes, or even fighting, it’s likely you imagine them as active rather than sedentary – and on the whole, that’s fairly accurate. 

For our predecessors, physical activity was an unavoidable part of life. Whereas we can just stop at a supermarket to buy more food, early humans didn’t have that option; if they wanted to eat, they had to get moving.

So what does that tell us about exercise, then? That it’s something evolution compels us to do? That it’s entirely natural? The short answer is no.

The key message here is: We didn’t evolve to exercise.

On the face of it, this is a shocking idea – if we evolved to be physically active, then surely we evolved to exercise. What’s the difference?

The crux of the issue is that exercise is voluntary physical activity, usually undertaken in order to improve our health and fitness. Humans evolved to be active when circumstances demand it – like when food is running low and our bellies start to rumble. With a few exceptions like dancing and childhood games, we didn’t evolve to engage in unnecessary activity.

In short, evolution hasn’t actually given us any impulse to exercise; on the contrary, forcing ourselves to get moving involves overcoming some of our most basic instincts. So if it seems hard to make yourself go on that jog, rest assured – that’s just as nature intended.

Our aversion to unnecessary activity actually makes a lot of sense. Moving around requires energy, and for energy we require food. For us, that doesn’t seem like a big deal; one soda contains all the energy you’re likely to burn on a 90-minute walk. Replenishment is no big deal.

But until very recently – evolutionarily speaking – circumstances were different. Food was hard to come by, which meant that wasting energy was dangerous. Any unnecessary activity you engaged in would deplete your reserves – leaving you with less energy to devote to the vital tasks of surviving and reproducing.

So does all this mean we should give up on exercising? No – quite the opposite! By explaining why keeping fit can feel like such a slog, this insight can help us to adopt a more understanding attitude toward ourselves and others. 

In a nutshell, we shouldn’t shame people for their reluctance to exercise; we should realize that overcoming our instincts takes work and dedication.

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