Paradox: We Evolved to Rely on Movement for Health and also to Avoid It Whenever Possible

One of the non-mysteries in health research these days is why fewer and fewer people are exercising despite the known health benefits. People are living longer due to medical interventions, but are actually living longer with chronic diseases associated with inactivity than ever before. Cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, arthritis, etc. are crippling many people in their older years and so they live longer, but not well. (1) The health benefits of even small amounts of increased physical activity are staggeringly positive and yet the number of people actively exercising continues to decline year after year while sedentary behaviors increase. (2) The reason for this may simply be that most people don’t find exercise pleasant and/or don’t believe they can exercise enough to make a difference. (3)

Evolution is a curious thing. It ingrains in us not only physical adaptations, but psychological ones that help us take advantage of those adaptations collectively for our survival. Thousands of years ago, life was pretty hard. You had to exert yourself rigorously and for long periods of time simply so you could eat, find shelter, and protect yourself and your family. Because food was scarce, when you had the opportunity to eat any kind of high sugar or high fat foods, you would take full advantage and gorge yourself before going back to your usual bark, bug, and leaf diet. Outside of play activities that mimicked the chasing and fleeing behavior necessary for survival (think tag or football) one did not unnecessarily exert one’s self to conserve energy. That last one is very important. Our bodies evolved to do all these things very well and be relatively healthy, but it is thought that there is a hard-wired psychological tendency to be conservative with physical activity whenever possible. (4)

Here in the 21st century, things are vastly different. We are in an environment where food is plentiful, especially those high in fat and sugar, and where we don’t ever have to exert ourselves for food, shelter, or protection except in rare circumstances. We get our food from the grocery store. We have heating and air conditioning. We drive instead of walk. Many of us have jobs where we sit or stand still most of the day. Visual media, televisions in particular, ensure that most of our liesure time is spent sitting as well. When faced with the idea of “exercising”, many people simply avoid it because it is unpleasant and the levels of intensity that seem to be required to make any lasting changes just don’t seem worth it. And we may still retain that psychological adaptation of finding unnecessary physical activity distasteful.

However, without regularly hunting and gathering food, traveling long distances, or even playing on a regular basis, our bodies do not adapt to be as strong and functional as they were meant to be. Some examples include: Inactive muscle and bone lack functional and structural strength, inactive muscle and nerves are not metabolically and neurologically primed to use resources effectively, and an inactive circulatory system cannot adequately nourish muscles and organs and remove waste. Collectively, these unoptimized systems are the cause of injury, disability, and disease. (4)

Lucky for us, however, we are not doomed by our brain’s possible hatred of excessive movement and preference for donuts and cheeseburgers. Motivation to exercise or even to increase physical activity in one’s daily routine has been extensively studied and there are many ways we can re-wire that evolutionary hard-wiring that makes us prefer sitting on the couch. Simply finding utility in daily activities such as walking or biking for transportation, gardening for food, or play for skill development are all deemed important and essential by our keenly evolved brains. You can reengineer your environment by parking further from the store, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or playing ball with whatever kids you have available to you in your backyard or local park. (4)

The truth is, the 150-300 minutes of exercise required per week for health does not have to be performed in the gym, nor does it have to be continuous 30-60 minute sessions of sweating and suffering. It can be walking your dog, carrying your groceries into your house, mowing your grass, harvesting vegetables from your garden, or doing any chores that involve moving your body. Play golf, play basketball, dance, find movement that brings you joy and do it. We can talk about how your diet affects your weight at another time, but what we do know is that any amount of physical activity is going to have a very positive affect on your health. Find a way to move regularly throughout your day and live a healthier life.

  1. Crimmins and Beltrán-Sánchez, “Mortality and Morbidity Trends: Is There Compression of Morbidity?”; Antonucci et al., “The Right to Move: A Multidisciplinary Lifespan Conceptual Framework.”
  2. Powell, Paluch, and Blair, “Physical Activity for Health: What Kind? How Much? How Intense? On Top of What?”
  3. Decker, E. S. and Ekkekakis, P. Decker, Emily S., and Panteleimon Ekkekakis. 2017. “More Efficient, Perhaps, But At What Price? Pleasure And Enjoyment Responses To High-Intensity Interval Exercise In Low-Active Women With Obesity”. Psychology Of Sport And Exercise 28: 1-10. doi:10.1016/j.psychsport.2016.09.005.; Lachman et al., “When Adults Don’t Exercise: Behavioral Strategies to Increase Physical Activity in Sedentary Middle-Aged and Older Adults.”; Sullivan and Lachman, “Behavior Change with Fitness Technology in Sedentary Adults: A Review of the Evidence for Increasing Physical Activity.”; Lee, Emerson, and Williams, “The Exercise–Affect–Adherence Pathway: An Evolutionary Perspective.”
  4. Lee, Emerson, and Williams, “The Exercise–Affect–Adherence Pathway: An Evolutionary Perspective.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s