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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.