Daniel Lieberman is a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University and the author of the book Exercised.
He once decided to do an informal — if sneaky — study.
While at an academic conference, he counted how many people took the escalator versus the stairs. In ten minutes, 151 people walked past him and only 11 used the stairs. That’s just seven percent.
Thing was, this was a meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine. The name of the conference was “Exercise Is Medicine.”
These results weren’t as bad as you might think — formal studies of the general populace show, on average, only five percent of people take the stairs. We all know exercise is good… but most of us just don’t do it. Just like the proven way to getting wealthy is simple, but not easy.
Lieberman cites the following:
“According to a 2018 survey by the US government, almost all Americans know that exercise promotes health and think they should exercise, yet 50 percent of adults and 73 percent of high school students report they don’t meet minimal levels of physical activity, and 70 percent of adults report they never exercise in their leisure time.”
Why is exercise so hard?
Lieberman wisely observes that treadmill-like devices were first used by the Romans to turn winches and lift heavy objects, and then modified in 1818 by inventor William Cubitt to punish prisoners and prevent idleness. For more than a century, English convicts (including famous author Oscar Wilde) were condemned to trudge for hours a day on enormous steplike treadmills.
Sure, some people enjoy exercise, but you’re not broken if you aren’t intrinsically motivated to do it. We didn’t evolve to waste energy being active for no reason. But in the modern world we’ve been good at getting rid of reasons.
We’re not “lazy” — we’re victims of our own success. Evolution thought we’d always have a reason to move a lot. But now we don’t move and, that’s bad because a lot of the way our bodies work is dependent on it.
Back in the 1960’s they did a study where healthy twenty-year-old’s did nothing but lay in bed all day for three weeks. Afterward, the subjects’ health metrics didn’t even look like those of twenty-year-old’s anymore. They were indistinguishable from forty-year-olds. Three weeks of lying around seemed to age them two decades.
So next the scientists put them on an eight-week exercise regimen. Their health metrics instantly bounced back to twenty-year-old levels. How did lead researcher Bengt Saltin sum up the results?
"Humans were meant to move”
It’s unnatural for us to be sedentary.
What’s this got to do with financial matters?
As we’re a financial services firm, that’s a fair question.
Health relates to everything in life. Health, happiness, and wealth are all intertwined.
All the wealth in the world is meaningless unless you’re healthy enough to make the most of it.
Lieberman says most of the health problems we attribute to aging these days are not the direct consequence of ageing. In fact, they’re due to modern behaviors and lifestyles — just like the bedrest study. He calls them “mismatch diseases” — the result of a mismatch between how we were designed to live vs how we actually do.
Type 2 diabetes
It’s virtually unheard of in hunter-gatherers. But it’s now the fastest growing disease in the modern world, increasing more than sevenfold between 1975 and 2005. Guess what? Exercise reverses insulin resistance.
Before World War Two they weren’t nearly as big an issue. Medical science barely even felt the need to study them. In 1946, researcher Jeremy Morris said you could go to the Royal Society of Medicine library and read all the literature on heart attacks before it was time for lunch. But now cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death. How do you prevent heart attacks? Take a guess.
Lieberman’s book cites one “massive study of nearly ten thousand men, which found that individuals with good cardiorespiratory fitness had more than a fourfold lower risk for cardiovascular diseases than those with poor fitness, and those who improved their fitness cut their risk in half.”
An Italian study showed that between 1760 and 1839 less than one percent of people died from cancer. Now it’s one of the most common killers. Again, we can attribute a big part of its increase to lack of exercise.
Lieberman notes that “when the researchers looked at the relationship between varying physical activity levels and cancer rates (controlling for sex, age, smoking, alcohol, and education), they found a clear dose-response relationship. Compared with those who were sedentary, modest exercisers had 13 to 20 percent lower cancer rates, and those who exercised moderately or more had 25 to 30 percent lower cancer rates.”
It’s twenty times more common in the West than in the developing world and projected to increase fourfold by 2050. There is no cure and no effective treatments.
Well, according to Lieberman there is one possible preventative cure: exercise. “Exercise is by far the most effective known form of prevention and treatment. Further, the effects are impressive. An analysis of sixteen prospective studies including more than 160,000 individuals found that moderate levels of physical activity lowered the risk of Alzheimer’s by 45 percent.”
How to fix it?
Okay, enough doom and gloom. Time for some answers.
Remember the bedrest study with the twenty-year-olds? Well, 30 years later the researchers got the same group of subjects back to study them again, now as fifty-year-olds. The decades had not been kind. So, the researchers put them on a six-month exercise regimen. What happened?
Boom. From a cardiovascular perspective, they pretty much became twenty-year-olds again. “After six months of moderate exercise, the average volunteer’s blood pressure, resting heart rate, and cardiac output returned to his twenty-year-old level.”
Could the issue be too much sitting?
Recently the emphasis hasn’t been on that. A lot of what we’ve been hearing has largely been asking, “Isn’t the problem just too much sitting?”
We’ve all read the scary headlines about the dangers of too much sitting around. But guess what? Our healthy hunter-gatherer ancestors used to sit a lot too, which means we’re programmed for it.
Sitting, by itself, is not going to kill you. The problems here are caused by weight gain, chronic low-grade inflammation, and too much sugar and fat floating around in your bloodstream.
Also, sitting at the office is not the problem. It’s uninterrupted hours of sitting at home that is the real culprit.
“One massive fifteen-year-long study of more than ten thousand Danes found no association between time spent sitting at work and heart disease. An even bigger study on sixty-six thousand middle-aged Japanese office workers yielded similar results. Instead, leisure-time sitting best predicts mortality, suggesting that socioeconomic status and exercise habits in mornings, evenings, and weekends have important health effects beyond how much one sits during weekdays at the office.”
It seems the answer is regular exercise combined with occasionally getting up from the couch.
How much exercise?
In the vast majority of cases, more exercise is better, albeit with diminishing returns past a certain point. Plain and simple, the negatives from too little far outweigh the problems from too much.
Lieberman: “… the biggest reduction in mortality, about a 30 percent drop, is between sedentary individuals and those who exercise sixty minutes a week. However, the risk of death continues to fall with higher doses of exercise. People who report three and six weekly hours of exercise lower their risk of death by about another 10 percent and 15 percent, respectively.”
Some people manufacture excuses to not exercise – arguing that it is too difficult to work out what kind of exercise gear, supplements, or gadgets they need. The truth is, this is one area where there’s a clear answer that nearly all the studies agree on:
“…engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise a week and weight train at least twice a week. Epidemiologists have calculated that this level of activity will reduce my risk of dying prematurely by 50 percent and lower my chances of getting heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and certain cancers by roughly 30 to 50 percent.”
Know your why
“Health” is vague, abstract, and long term. For people not prone to exercise, there’s no immediate, reason to do it. So,
try a sport, or
learn a skill, like martial arts or dancing.
Once there’s a goal, it’s not pointless and it can even be this thing called “fun”. There needs to be a reward component. For activities that are more abstract like going to the gym, pair it with something rewarding in the moment like audiobooks or podcasts.
There’s also the second thing: socialising. Remember, we evolved to work in groups. We hunted together, foraged together, fought together, and played together — moved together. So don’t white knuckle exercise alone. Do something because you want to see your friends, but something that gets you moving in the process.
Sports, games, dancing or even just going for a walk all contain a social component that doesn’t rely on abstract motivation.
Then, once you’re in the groove
Chances are you’ll live a much longer, happier, and healthier life. Enjoy it!
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