Exercise: It's what we evolved to do

Our ancestors were hunter-gatherers who trekked at least five miles every day as well as ran, dug and climbed.

Story highlights

  • Exercising for health has deep evolutionary roots
  • Most Americans don't exercise enough
  • We should help each other exercise more often, authors say
When it comes to health care, Americans disagree about much, but we do agree that our $2.7-trillion-a-year health care system is broken.
Although fixing the system will be difficult, there is one inexpensive, readily available, and highly effective way to prevent illness while drastically reducing skyrocketing health care costs: Let's help each other exercise more. In fact, it's what we evolved to do.
The essential role of physical activity in promoting health has deep evolutionary roots. Prior to a few hundred generations ago, our ancestors were hunter-gatherers who trekked at least five miles every day as well as ran, dug, climbed, and did all their work by hand.
Although the origin of agriculture transformed our diets, farmers also had to toil long, hard hours. Until recently, all of us were athletes.
Today, most Americans seldom, if ever, have to do much physical work. Cars, elevators, escalators, shopping carts, and other labor-saving innovations allow us to exist for days without ever significantly elevating our heart rates or breaking a sweat. Few jobs require physical activity and most of us have little inclination to exercise in our spare time.
Daniel Lieberman
As a result, a majority of Americans fail to meet the Surgeon General's recommendation to exercise at least 150 minutes per week.
Being physically inactive is not only abnormal, it is also pathological, because the old adage "use it or lose it" is really true. Our bodies evolved to require the stresses inherent in physical activity to grow and function properly, and our bodies never evolved to cope with persistent inactivity.
Moderate exercise is vital for developing a strong and healthy circulatory system, durable bones safe from osteoporosis, a vigorous immune system, a properly functioning brain and more. Almost every organ and body system benefits from regular exercise and is compromised by its absence.