Tag Archives: jamie oliver

The Exercise Paradox: Evolution’s Role

Chris Hunt Wellness

Did you ever wonder why you can in theory blame our Neanderthal ancestors for the reason why you find exercising a chore? No? Read on then for a great excuse to justify your lethargy when faced with the prospect of a run.

Blog pig

Run piggy, run
We are the best long distance runners on the planet, and there is an evolutionary theory as to why. This all starts with our ability to hold our heads still when we run. All animals, including humans, who are good at running are also very good at holding their heads still. For an example of an animal that is not good at running just watch a pig run with its head bobbing all over the place (it was not long ago that you would have had to trek out to the countryside to watch a pig run, but now thanks to the Internet it’s a simple task. You can probably find a dancing pig as well. Thank God for YouTube…)

The ponytail principle
Being able to run with the head still is important for gaze stabilisation. If you watch someone with a ponytail running, the ponytail bobs up and down because of the pitching forces acting on the head, but the head stays very stable. There are special mechanisms that help us do this. The semi-circular canals in human heads are greatly enlarged relative to apes, which gives us greater ability to perceive and react to rapid accelerations of the head. As our ancestors had no other reason to control head movements, running could be the explanation as to why.

Chris Hunt Wellness

From being able to run to marathons
We evolved from very non-active creatures (your average chimp walks 2 to 3 kilometres a day, runs about 100 metres and climbs a few trees) so where did our endurance come from? It is estimated that our hunter-gatherer ancestors walked or ran 9 to 15 kilometres every day, and it is argued that for that reason from our heads to our toes, we have all the features necessary for endurance running; short toes that require less energy to stabilise and generate less shock; Achilles tendons that stores and releases energy appropriately as we run; large gluteus Maximus muscles that steady the trunk; and the stabilisation of the head.

Blog HG

Endurance was the key
It is hypothesised that the advantage for our ancestors was persistence hunting. We can run long distances at speeds that require other animals to gallop. That’s not an endurance gait for quadrupeds, because they cool by panting with short shallow breaths, but they cannot gallop and pant at the same time. So if we chase an animal making it gallop in the heat for as little as 15 minutes, on a hot day it will die of heat stroke.

From endurance athletes to couch-potatoes
It was only very recently in our history that a large proportion of humans have been freed from having to do physical activity. If you consider our evolution, not exercising every day is abnormal. So why do most people hate exercise so much? One answer might be that our ancestors didn’t run for fun. They didn’t pull on their Nikes and pound the forests for the buzz of exercise or to beat their personal best time. They had to run long distances everyday to survive. They had no option but to exercise and they probably avoided unnecessary exercise whenever they could. For sure they didn’t jog for the fun of it.

Blog runner 2

The Evolution problem
Evolution has given us traits that are not always helpful. Surgery, fatty foods would have been advantageous for early humans but not so today. And we still are prone to avoid exercise whenever we can, using escalators instead of stairs. So we may have deep rooted evolutionary instincts that do not help a healthy lifestyle.

The consequences of a sedentary lifestyle Nearly all diseases are affected by physical activity. I have written before about this (I lost my father to dementia¬†and Let’s talk about depression Part 1). Take the two major killers: heart disease and cancer. The heart requires exercise to grow properly. Exercise increases the peripheral arteries and decreases cholesterol levels, and by doing so it decreases the risk of heart disease by up to 50%.

Breast cancer and many other. Reproductive tissue cancers also respond strongly to exercise. Other factors being constant, women who have regularly engaged in regular vigorous physical exercise have significantly lower cancer rates than women who have not. There are also benefit for mental health including depression and anxiety.

Blog hG2

So how can we fight against our evolution?
How do we make ourselves eat food we would rather not and exercise when we do not want to? The most obvious way if through socially acceptable coercion. There is a reason why we should be very concerned about the lack of exercise and poor foods being served up in our schools. Jamie Oliver has it right when he campaigns for a better diet for our children. At some point we must act in our own self-interest.

Did evolution help at all?
Yes it did. It’s important to recognise that the body isn’t adapted only in one way or another. There are multiple competing adaptations. Whilst many of our instincts do not like exercise, we have other adaptions that make us enjoy exercise.

The most obvious is the runner’s high. When we were running after animals for our lunch, we were also tracking, observing our surroundings, the environment. A runner’s high intensifies everything, stimulating our perception and our sensory awareness. I remember when I was getting close to the end of the Sydney Marathon, getting a euphoric rush when everything seemed brighter and larger than life. Then I remembered that my legs really hurt.

Blog Mammoth

Knowledge is power
Being aware of our evolutionary progress may seem somewhat irrelevant to the fact that you do not want to go running this morning in the rain, but knowledge is power. You now have more knowledge having read this article, so you have more power to do the things you want to do, achieve the goals you want to achieve. Just try to find a woolly mammoth to chase.


Couch Potatoes are our Olympic Legacy


A recent survey confirmed the findings of the annual UK Commons Education Select Committee survey that found that there is no noticeable increase in children doing sport in the UK since the Olympics. In the words of the parrot Iago from the Disney movie Aladdin, “I think I’m going to die from not surprise” (I have no idea how or why I remember that quote by the way…)

It makes very uncomfortable reading. Most people fail to even go for a 10 minute walk once a month! Only 21% of boys between under the age of 15 were active for an hour a day, down from 28% in 2008. And for girls the figures are worse, only 16% which is down from 19% in 2008. Teenagers are worse, 14% of boys between the ages of 13 and 15 are getting enough exercise, a figure down from 28% in 2008, and for girls the figure is just 8% down from 14%. And adults do not fair much better. 2/3 of men and about 50% of women do 2.5 hours of moderate activity a week (the same as 2008), but before producers of sports clothing get too excited, the weekly activity done by 59% or women and 48% of men is household chores. Only 46% of men and 37% of woman said they had walked for 10 minutes in the previous 4 weeks. Shocking, really shocking.

Government figures state that 1.6M more people are doing regular sport since the UK won the Olympic bid in 2005, but where is the evidence? Not only is there no apparent legacy from the Olympics, in children the figures are actually getting worse.

So what happened? As with most things, there are a combination of contributory factors. Those in the political arena will point to a systematic selling off of school playing fields. Others will blame Playstations, Candy Crush or the Internet. It’s certainly not through a lack of exposure to sport, as with dedicated sports channels, high profile sporting events and the ability to watch endless replays on YouTube, there is more sport in the media than ever before. People love the sport celebrity culture, but rather than try to emulate their heroes or heroines, they’re quite happy to just sit and watch.

In my opinion, whilst all the above factors are of course relevant, one big issue is the severe lack of facilities. The standard and number of decent sporting facilities in the UK is a disgrace. Over the last decades, the interest in sport and physical activity has been eroded and throttled so now we have a legacy alright, but it’s one of lethargy and apathy. It’s quite ridiculous to think that by having the Olympics would’ve solved the historical underlining issues. Sure, it was an amazing event and without doubt it generated a lot more interest in sport, but where the hell were all these interested people supposed to go? Public facilities are typically dirty and outdated, many people cannot afford expensive health club membership, and as for gymnastics or the majority of other disciplines, good luck finding a club without a waiting of a few years.

The answer is simple. Not easy, but simple. Improve facilities and educate our children. It’s not a quick fix, but they never work anyway. It’s going to take years to change the cultural attitudes toward exercise and health in general, but we need to start. Remember the story of the Spanish admiral centuries ago who much to the amusement of his colleagues instructed the planting of thousands of oak trees so there would be enough raw materials for ship building? “But it will take 100 years before we can use this wood” they said, to which he replied “you better get planting straight away then”. So when do we start planting our metaphorical oak trees? There’s no sign of it yet.

I recently wrote to the UK Government asking them to talk to me about introducing Pilates into schools as part of my Pilates Allstars System for children. Pilates is not cardio of course (or at least in my opinion it should not be) but it builds a foundation for sport, it gets children into the exercise habit, all children no matter what their sex, shape or size can do it, and imagine the benefits and money saved for UK business and the National Health Service if our kids left school with strong postural muscles, body awareness, flexibility and good postures? You will die from not surprise to find out no one was interested.

You only have to remember parents smuggling McDonalds Happy Meals into schools where Jamie Oliver had introduced healthy eating to know that we have a big cultural problem in the UK when it comes to health. But we must try because if we do not, the consequences are unthinkable. Let’s start planting those oak trees so that later generations can truly benefit. That will be a legacy worth waiting for.