Updated: Mar 24
We all need to be active to stay healthy. Fitness is key to living well and living long. But we need to know which exercise activities are best to reach our goals.
New Year’s fitness resolutions are notoriously expensive, ineffective, and even dangerous.
Before you jump in and spend costly dollars on gym memberships and exercise equipment and even get yourself hurt, take some time to explore realistic, evolutionary based fitness options that can really improve your health.
Knowing why we need to be fit can help us make realistic decisions informed by knowledge of human evolutionary development. Let’s start with a brief discussion of how we evolved as a species and how we need to be fit to be healthy.
If you aren't interested in the bio/history aspects go directly to the Benefits of Exercise section below.
This post is the second in a series explaining my five Health Essentials.
Why We Need to Be Fit
Evolution can teach us a great deal about our fitness needs.
If you have had the opportunity to watch chimpanzees and apes at the zoo or watched National Geographic videos, you will notice that they do a lot of sitting around. In fact, Herman Pontzer, associate professor of anthropology at Duke University, describes the daily routine of chimpanzees in the wild as pretty much that of a couch potato:
“Wake up early…off to breakfast (fruit). Eat until stuffed, then find a nice place to nap, maybe some light grooming. After an hour or so (no rush!), go find a sunny tree with figs and gorge yourself. Maybe go meet with some friends, a bit more grooming, another nap. Around five o’clock have an early dinner (more fruit, maybe some leaves), then it is time to find a nice sleeping tree, build a nest and call it a night.”
This laid-back lifestyle goes for orangutans, gorillas, and bonobos. All the great apes spend 10 hours a day resting with about 10 hours sleeping.
By human standards, you would think that the apes were dangerously unhealthy. All that sitting and eating and napping. But that’s not the case. These same lollygagging chimps are extraordinarily healthy. They don’t suffer from diabetes; their arteries are not clogged. They don’t suffer from heart disease even at very low activity levels. In fact, they maintain the body fat percentages of human Olympic athletes.
What’s going on?
How is it possible that chimps can sustain a low activity lifestyle and still be robustly healthy? For any of us living such a sedentary lifestyle, we would, and do, suffer from a wide assortment of chronic, debilitating and fatal diseases.
Although we share about 95 percent of our genetic code with our ape cousins, things are very different fitness wise for us humans. Unlike chimps and gorillas, we have evolved an entirely different physiology. It is necessary for us to move and to exercise to maintain our health.
These changes are rooted in the split from our primate cousins about 7 or so million years ago. We started to walk upright, develop larger brains, smaller intestines, changed dental structure, and more flexible hearts. These changes were in the service of expanding our habitat and dramatically changing our behaviors from those lollygagging days of eating fruit and napping to the dynamic needs of hunter gatherers. In other words, our bodies evolved to need physical activity to sustain health and assure survival.
It was this change that created who we are today. The demands of hunting over ever wider terrains and developing tools to assist in the eating of a wider variety of foods (meat and fish) brought about profound shifts in physiology. To successfully hunt we needed to walk and sometimes run long distances, sleep less, develop strong leg muscles, high capacity aerobically efficient lungs and hearts, and larger brains that heightened our ability to successfully navigate ever changing terrains. These changes extended to generating stronger social and community ties. It takes highly sophisticated social structures to win at the hunting game.
Our brains even developed a reward system for indulging in physical activity. The runner’s high we experience after strenuous physical activity is the brain producing endorphins that give us a mild taste of post-exercise euphoria.
Gone forever are the low activity ways of our primate ancestors. Without sustained mild to vigorous physical activity that mimics the hunter gatherer way of life, we cannot remain healthy and vigorous into later years.
This need for physical exercise leads to serious problems for all of us. We live in highly industrialized/urbanized and sedentary societies were technology’s labor-saving devices and structures have led to epidemics of chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, gastrointestinal disorders, depression and anxiety, and arthritis, among many others.
In the groundbreaking work Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine, Randolph M. Nesse, MD and George C. Williams put the dilemma this way:
“Our bodies were designed over the course of millions of years for living in small groups hunting and gathering on the plains of Africa. Natural selection has not had time to revise our bodies to cope with fatty diets, automobiles, drugs, artificial lights, and central heating. From this mismatch between our design and our environment arises(sic) much, perhaps most, preventable modern disease. The current epidemics of heart disease, and breast cancer are tragic examples.”
Benefits of Exercise
Exercise keeps us healthy by:
· reducing chronic inflammation and stress hormones such as cortisol
· lowering insulin resistance
· effectively storing glucose in our muscles
· Enhancing the immune system to ward off infection
· Improving gut bacteria for a healthier microbiome.
What we see through the eyes of evolution is that humans are designed to be active, to move, to walk, lift, and run long distances. Unlike our primate cousins, we cannot be sedentary If we wish to be healthy.
Overall, being fit can reduce stress and anxiety, improve depression, boost feelings of well-being and self-confidence, reduce mental decline, increase the size of the hippocampus, enhance memory and creativity, and increase overall functionality.
Exercise can also help us lower our risk of many cancers, such as cancers of the esophagus, liver, lung, kidney, and stomach, among many others.
Exercise is not an option to forego. Being fit and active is built into our hunter/gatherer DNA.
What Kind of Exercise Should Be A Part of Your New Year’s Resolution?
Sedentary living is bad for you. It promotes a host of chronic diseases, disorders, and body/mind dysfunctions.
I’m sure you are expecting me to launch into a long speech about the need for intense exercise. Well, I’ll get to that but first I want to introduce you to a more recent take on how to combat our sedentary lifestyles that’s way short of running a marathon or going to the gym five days a week.
A recent meta-analysis combined data of 36,000 middle aged to older people from the US and Europe for six years measuring both the amount and intensity of their physical movements. All participants were followed using accelerometers. The study tracked all-cause mortality with a follow-up of 5.8 years.
The results were striking.
Professor Ulf Ekelund of the Norwegian School of Sports Sciences summarized the study’s findings:
“We found that all physical activity counts, regardless of intensity,” Dr. Ekelund says. “For those who cannot participate in moderate intensity activities, such as brisk walking, there are beneficial effects of lower-intensity activity.”
In other words, people who spent the most time engaged in any form of physical activity were 73 percent less likely to die during the duration of the study. While people who logged the lightest intensity movement (slow walking, household chores, cooking, etc.) were 52 percent less likely to die compared to the sedentary group.
On the other hand, as expressed by Becky Upham of Everydayhealth.com: “Sedentary time above 9.5 hours per day was associated with an increased risk of death. Those who spent 10 hours sedentary had a 50 percent higher risk, and those who spent 12 hours sedentary had almost three times the risk…”
The Take-Away (Low Intensity Organic Fitness)
The study demonstrates that any physical activity has benefit. This finding supports the evidence accumulating about our hunter-gatherer ancestors. To survive they needed to move in a wide variety of ways and intensities; from picking up children, gathering berries, walking to find animals and fish to eat, or running down prey.
For us it translates into, at the minimum, modifying some of our everyday activities:
· Park an extra distance away from the office
· Take the stairs whenever you can, skip the escalator or elevator
· Stand up every half hour and walk around for a few minutes
· Stretch from time to time throughout the day
· Take a walk during lunch or after dinner
· Wash the dishes instead of using the dishwasher
· Vacuum the floor and wash the windows
Walking can be the foundation to a good organic fitness program. If there is one thing our ancient ancestors did, it was walk. Most scientific research supports the idea that our ancestors walked to survive.
Erik Garnas of Darwinian-Medicine.com has concluded that : “Paleolithic humans undoubtedly walked long distances on a frequent basis in order to get a hold of the food they needed to survive.”
We can do the same.
My son Chris has developed a low intensity program he calls Exercise All Day. It consists of the following:
1. Do indoor walking. Walk around the house for 5-10 minutes at a time. When at work, leave a little early or take the long way to the next meeting
2. Do stair climbing whenever possible
3. Purchase some inexpensive resistance bands you can use on your break or at home for a quick five-minute workout
4. Get down on the floor at home, either sitting or lying, and simply get up. Start with one attempt and increase as you improve. You will be using nearly every muscle.
You can also do chair yoga, Tai Chi or chair calisthenics which are available on YouTube. Aquatic exercise is a great conditioner, as well.
My son Dave does an assortment of exercises that includes resistance training with bands, yoga, and walking.
If you are disabled or have decreased mobility look at this web site for some great suggestions.
The Full Monty (High Intensity Organic Fitness)
In 2010 an article appeared in The American Journal of Medicine entitled Achieving Hunter-gatherer Fitness in the21st Century: Back to the Future. The authors outline what a fully developed fitness program that mimics the hunter-gatherer lifestyle could look like for us modern folks.
Several distinct behaviors can help us simulate indigenous human activity and promote increased health and fitness. “Daily exercise substantially alters the expression of a substantial proportion of the genes that comprise the human genome.”
Increased energy expenditure on physical exercise and movement promotes a radical shift in human genetic expression while explaining the correlation between physical activity and health and survival.
Here are some of the takeaways from the article that enable us to mimic hunter-gatherer exercise activity and establish an organic fitness regimen:
§ Alternate between types of exercises such as aerobics, resistance training, and flexibility work
§ Shift between hard workouts one day and easier or rest days on another
§ Vary your workouts between low and high intensity training once or twice a week
§ Do strength training (or body weight training) plus flexibility work 2-3 times a week for 20-30 minutes
§ Exercise outdoors as much as possible
§ Make exercising a social event by doing it with partners
§ Be as consistent as possible year-round.
To make sure you cover all the bases during your workout, this article from Health Prep can help.
To Gym or not to Gym
All the above exercise activities can be done without expensive gym memberships. But it’s up to you. I have a home gym with weights, resistance bands, a bench, and a stationary bike. I walk about three times a week around town. If you don’t have the space, inclination or desire to create a home gym and want a more social experience a gym membership may make sense. With a gym membership you can get a trainer to help you learn the basics and create a program that fits your needs.
A sedentary lifestyle is bad for you. It leads to a plethora of chronic diseases that plague modern humans. As activity levels continue to decrease mortality increases. Evolution has prepared us for an active and dynamic way of life. Our entire DNA, brain, nervous system, cells, muscles, lungs, heart, bones, etc. are programmed to respond to movement. Without movement our bodies degenerate.
The good news is that exercise, even at low intensity, such as walking, can reverse the degenerative process. The science is clear: the less sedentary you are the greater your chances of reducing premature illness and death. Exercise increases your health span.
By following the suggestions above, you can start on the path to a more creative, healthy, and fulfilling life.
Always start slow. Take your time and get your body accustomed to physical activity. Getting injured can set you back weeks or even months.
It’s up to you where you set the bar. If you want to do a marathon or get into crossfit, go for it. But you don’t have to in order to reap the results of a consistent, well-rounded exercise regimen.
Before starting any exercise program, especially if you are out of shape or a senior like me, it’s important to consult with your physician or health care provider.
Part 3 of my Health Essentials blog posts will tackle the challenge of stress and modern lifestyles as well as what we can do to effectively manage it in our daily lives.