In your great-grandparents’ day, hardly anybody exercised. There were sports enthusiasts who raced or danced or rode horses, played ball or rowed for fun. But then, as throughout evolution, very few people went to the gym. Still, they stayed physically active, either because their work required it or because they had found something, such as wandering in the woods, that they really enjoyed. Can we also make exercise more enjoyable?
Our guest, Dr. Daniel Lieberman, is a human evolutionary biologist. His research takes him to some pretty far-flung places to study how people move. In one vignette, Dr. Lieberman and his students went to a great deal of trouble to acquire a treadmill and cart it up the mountain to a village with pre-industrial conditions. They planned to use it to study how women carry heavy burdens on their heads. Does that alter their gait? The experiement didn’t work, because the treadmill itself changes the way people walk. The anthropologists had to do their study without the treadmill, which the villagers found a very amusing contraption.
Despite the fact that we all know we should exercise, only about 20 percent of us actually engage in the physical activity we need to stay healthy. Given the choice, many people take the elevator rather than the stairs. Dr. Lieberman says that’s only natural: we’ve evolved to save energy. Rather than shaming and blaming those who are following through on their natural inclinations, we should find ways to make exercise both necessary and fun.
Research suggests there is no single optimal dose or type of physical activity that suits every body. However, there is one factor that works for most people to make exercise more enjoyable: make it social! Getting together with friends, whether for tennis or a run, helps us follow through on our good intentions. Why? Because it is fun, and we don’t want to let our friends down. If your social connection is an exercise class at the gym, fine. But you don’t have to buy into the highly medicalized and commercialized exercise industry. Finding another way to harness the power of social connection to make exercise more enjoyable is also great.
Daniel E. Lieberman, PhD, is the Edwin M. Lerner Professor of Biological Sciences and professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University. He is the author of the national best seller, The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease. His latest book is Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding.
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