6 years ago, if someone credible had told me that I didn’t need to exercise, I’d have asked no questions and continued to live without the looming guilt of ‘I know I should exercise” hanging over my head. But today, having had my life significantly altered by movement and exercise, done extensive research into the benefits of movement and the dangers of inactivity, AND having built an entire business around it, when I read the headline “We Were Born to Be Lazy,” I have to say I had questions.
Harvard professor Daniel Lieberman (ironically, an ultra-long-distance runner) published his latest book in which he argues that exercise is unnatural and we were born to be lazy. Coming from a man who is one of the leading experts on the human body and is best known for his work explaining how we came to run, this research felt a bit off brand. But digging a little deeper, it proved incredibly insightful and made sense.
In defence of sitting
We regularly hear that “Sitting is the new smoking”. And while this seems rather dramatic, it’s the truth. Physical inactivity opens us up to a multitude of diseases, chronic illness and cognitive decline. So why would professor Lieberman be arguing that we are fundamentally lazy and that it’s okay?
Let’s go back to the hunter-gatherers.
At TheOptimal.me we talk about how our bodies are designed to move, explaining how hunter-gatherers had to climb, run, carry, push and pull – constantly using their bodies to survive.
And here’s where Lieberman’s laziness argument rolls in: because movement was (and is) about survival, so too was preserving energy. Early man would only move when necessary and certainly would not expend valuable calories on exercise solely for the sake of staying physically fit.
Our bodies are designed to be functional, not aesthetic pleasing – but I’ll come back to this later on.
There’s no reason to feel guilty about being lazy
Laziness meant preservation, and sitting around for hours on end meant that when the time came, hunter-gatherers could use their energy stores efficiently. The idea of ‘exercise’ would have been ridiculous. Lieberman argues that if we had to put the hunter-gatherers in today’s society, they’d be much like us – sitting around until the next meal, only moving when we really have to. Thus, the idea of exercise as we know it is unnatural.
Therefore, he says, those of us who loathe exercise and move as little as possible are simply acting on our natural instincts to preserve energy.
Is exercise really medicine, or have we just forgotten to move?
Of course, while sitting for extended periods of time was harmless and essential a few centuries back, when coupled with today’s unhealthy relationship with food and a total lack of physical activity, it’s dangerous. Too many people indulge in the natural tendency to take it easy, eating unhealthy, processed foods, which has led to a “worldwide rise in avoidable, chronic non-infectious diseases.” It’s no wonder health experts are calling exercise medicine. Research shows that those who engage in regular physical activity have far greater cardiovascular, respiratory, muscular and mental health than those who don’t, and therefore exercise really does seem like the cure-all for the ills of modern society.
Professor Lieberman says otherwise. In his essay, “Is Exercise Really Medicine?” he argues that the original purpose of physical activity is not to heal. Our bodies are designed to adapt to how we interact with our physical environment, no matter the physical stress we place on our bodies in the activities of day to day life – whether we do a little or a lot.
If you were a villager who had to walk up a steep hill every day and had to run home, your body would struggle for the first few treks, but after a while it would adapt and things would get easier. That is simply because continuous, vigorous exercise stimulates the expansion of peripheral circulation, increasing cardiac output. In other words, your body realises it needs to pump blood and oxygen around your body faster, so it adapts and improves the function of the responsible system.
But of course, since our bodies do not waste energy on things we do not use, those who “avoid moderate physical activity will develop low cardiovascular capacity, predisposing them to many kinds of diseases that used to be rare,” Lieberman explains. 100 years ago, avoiding physical activity was near impossible, so the diseases strongly linked to physical inactivity today (heart disease, osteoporosis, respiratory difficulty etc.) can, to some extent, absolutely be cured by movement and exercise.
The reality is that the health benefits of exercise or physical activity are simply a natural response to the demands we place on our bodies.
“While physical activity is a potent medicine, it never evolved for that role,” he says.
In defence of movement
I was relieved to discover that Lieberman does, in fact, believe in the significance of physical activity in leading a healthy lifestyle – he hasn’t gone totally left of field! He speaks about movement – not exercise – as an essential part of our survival and health, especially in a time where chronic physical inactivity and its consequences are rife.
While crazy exercise fads and trends are fleeting and don’t really serve us in the long run, one thing remains the same: we need to move to survive and live well as we age.
In TheOptimal.me language, this translates to being fit for purpose. Ensuring your body is ready and able to do what you need it to do, when you want to, using the least amount of energy. Each of us needs to make sure that our body is in the best possible condition to perform the acts we need not only to live, but to live well.
Flexibility. Mobility. Balance. Strength.
That’s all we need. There’s no need to be pumped up super-humans able to flip a 200lb tyre. What we need is to have the energy and wherewithal to live our lives freely, independent, and without pain or fear of injury. Integrated Movement Routines (IMRs) mimic the way we move in daily life, helping us improve our functionality, learning to use our bodies in the most efficient way possible.
The reality is that our lifestyles are what they are. We sit a lot and it’s easy to forget to move. Our schedules are often jam packed and the idea of forcing ourselves to do an hour of ‘exercise’ a few times a week can seem like a mammoth and unwelcome task. But the trick is really to work smart, not hard. To move more often throughout the day. As I said, we don’t need to be super-strong tyre flippers and as we age health and independence and being fit for purpose are paramount. So cut yourself some slack.