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Could Exercise Avoidance Be Hardwired?

If you’re someone who dislikes exercise and is tired of feeling like there’s something gravely wrong with you, perhaps there’s something very normal going on. You may be in sync with our human ancestors. Or, so says Daniel Lieberman, Harvard professor and expert in human evolutionary biology in “Hate exercise? Maybe you’re only human” by Colby Itkowitz (Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 10/4/16, E26).
“In a 2015 paper entitled “Is Exercise Really Medicine? An Evolutionary Perspective,” he poses the possibility that there is something unnatural about the idea of exercising simply for health reasons. Interesting, because we’re told all the time (and you may have even heard it from me on more than one occasion), that we should want to exercise to stay healthy. His explanation is based on the concept that humans developed in such a way as to want to conserve energy. The more energy we conserved for important activities, the likelier we were to live.
Referring to the human need to conserve energy, Lieberman says, “For most of human evolution, that didn’t matter because if you wanted to put dinner on the table, you had to work really hard.” Working hard burned off calories, which didn’t help humans keep meat on their bones, and that put them at risk for death and disease. Now, most (but certainly not all) of us in First World cultures don’t worry much about working off too many calories and losing too much weight. As he points out, we have energy-saving devices wherever we look: cars, buses, escalators, elevators, TV remotes, and moving sidewalks in airports. While our ancestors sought rest after great exertion (which was what most of their days were filled with), we’re more culturally inclined to want to do as little activity as possible. Or else why would we have all these energy-saving devices?
Lieberman notes that one of the reasons our ancestors were drawn to activity was because it was done communally—as a family, peer group, or an entire village. He says “it’s no coincidence that some of the biggest fundraising events in the world are marathons,” reminding us of the social pleasure of collaborative activity. He also cites dance in most cultures as a form of play. Dance was a form of play like roller skating, skateboarding, bicycling, jumping rope, shooting hoops or being part of a pick-up baseball game. As kids, we didn’t think of exercise as a chore or a way to burn calories or even as a way to stay healthy. Most of us enjoyed being active. But, if you still don’t enjoy lots of activity, don’t be hard on yourself. You might be right on target in evolutionary terms and our culture may be forcing us to go against human nature.