Daniel E. Lieberman is one of the most outspoken experts in the world on the effects of physical activity on the human body. So when I read the first page of his new book, Exercised: Why We Never Evolved, It’s Healthy and Rewarding, he once went to the closet to avoid PE classes. I was surprised that I was hiding.
Doctors, fitness gurus, and the media are constantly reminding us that exercise leads to a healthier, longer-lived, thinner and more attractive body. We celebrate the feat of sports prowess and give generous attention to superhero actors with a pathologically cut torso. So why, if this is so good for us, do most of us have a relationship with movements ranging from love-hate to hate? Why are we using surveillance technologies like smartwatches to achieve the “needed” daily pace?
The title of “Exercise” is a clue. There is something neurotic, annoying and worried about our obsession with physical activity. In this book, Lieberman flips over a dozen myths about fitness and health and dedicates chapters to each. His lens is evolution, he is a paleoanthropologist at Harvard University specializing in human movement, studying the effects of energy-consuming body movements in the laboratory and in groups of different people around the world. I am.
For example, in one chapter, Mr. Lieberman addresses the myth that sitting is bad for you. Unfortunately, he realized that the myth was true, but that’s not what most people expect. Contrary to popular wisdom, crouching postures do not cause back pain, as evidenced by both a series of studies on office workers and comparisons of sitting around the world. The real problem is that people don’t get up and move around enough. As scientists are beginning to understand, long-term inactivity and greater fat around our organs increase the risk of chronic inflammatory diseases such as arthritis and type 2 diabetes. What is Lieberman’s prescription? Do not inactivate for a long time. Rest. Get up. Or at least “shamelessly twist”.
Until about two million years ago, all of our ancestors lived in search of wild food. Human physiology and anatomy have adapted to these ancient lifestyles in ways that may not be optimal today. This history is not getting worse. In fact, Americans in the 21st century live longer and live healthier lives than in any previous era. But tricks that once evolved to solve old problems can stumble us today.
Daniel E. Lieberman
Pantheon, 440 pages, $ 29.95
To understand the challenges of modern life, anthropologists rely on the observation of a small group of humans living in search of wild, uncultivated food. Some of the best parts of “Exercised” are the rivers about his and other people’s work with these modern foraging groups, such as the Hadza, who live in dry and relatively inaccessible areas of Tanzania. It is Mr. Mann’s explanation. Their days include hours of exercise to find food, dig tubers, hunt, and collect honey. The Hadza spend a lot of time sitting and socializing. Like other foraging people living on a self-sufficient diet, they find Westerners’ obsession with exercise strange.
Anthropologists are wary of over-generalizing data from the Hadza and other populations, as all predators today are integrated into the world economy in complex ways. Mr. Lieberman is frank on this subject and says that scientific research itself has become a cottage industry that underpins the Hatza community. The worst risk is that the observations of individual studies are spun into scientific tall tales. This is what Lieberman calls “the myth of the barbarians of the movement.”
In that respect, “exercise” has made significant progress in the research topic that Mr. Lieberman himself has become most familiar with, the physiology of human running. In the early 2000s, Lieberman collected some traces of ancient skeletons. Standing man Physiological data from human runners suggesting that long-distance running is part of the reason we made us human. The idea of ancient hunters was to use slow but steady running patterns to chase animals, chasing them and exhausting them.
In “Exercised,” Lieberman visits the people of Tarahumara in northern Mexico, a group of people who influenced his ongoing research. The group became famous in the 2009 book “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougal, bringing the story of ultramarathon-length racing to a wide range of readers. “Exercised” explains that Mr. Lieberman visited to observe the footprints of traditional Tarahumara. He marvels at the counterintuitive observations: the people of Tarahumara who run the race do not train for them. Long races are a rare social event that brings the community together, but relatively few people participate directly. The racer’s experience is similar to that of an American ultramarathon runner, with suffering and fatigue. However, the cultural implications of the activity are clear and generalize to the notion of human origin rather than competition for runners than “inducing a state like a mental trance” or “a form of powerful prayer.” That is difficult.
Some sections of “Exercised” suffer from over-focusing on the bottom line of calories. For living, breathing animals, the balance between energy intake and consumption is as important as the financial balance sheet of a business. Still, reducing the rich pageants of life to metabolic inflows and outflows tends to make human beings as dry as an accountant’s ledger. In that sense, my favorite passage in this book is about dance. Dance in many societies is a ritual-related physical activity and a very social activity that has deep symbolic meaning for the participants. It reminds us that beauty, joy and rites of passage are central to human life and that physical activity can be vibrant and ecstatic.
For those who want to hide in the closet during a PE class, this is not your book. Science has identified many ways in which physical activity is valuable for a healthy life. Still, in a world where barefoot running and the Paleo diet are all the rage, I think Mr. Lieberman’s modest voice is welcome. (“Make exercise necessary and enjoyable,” he says. “Some are better than nothing. Keep it as you get older.”) All of them, real humans. Is moving throughout their lives-fortunately. Getting “exercise” is the beginning.
Hawks is a professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
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