YThis day at an outdoor cafe, I met my old friend James in person for the first time since the pandemic began. Over the past year on Zoom, it looked good, but in 3D you couldn’t hide how much weight I had gained. As we sat down with our cappuccinos, I didn’t say anything, but the first words that came out of her mouth were, “Yeah yeah, I’m 20 pounds too heavy and in pathetic shape now. I need to diet and exercise, but I don’t want to talk about it! “
If you feel like James, you are in good company. With the end of the Covid-19 pandemic now plausibly in sight, 70% of Britons say they hope to eat a healthier diet, lose weight and exercise more. But how? Every year millions of people promise to be more physically active, but the vast majority of these resolutions fail. We all know what happens. After a week or two of sticking to a new exercise regimen, we gradually revert to old habits and then feel bad about ourselves.
Clearly, we need a new approach because the most common ways we promote exercise – medicalizing and marketing it – aren’t very effective. The proof is in the pudding: Most adults in high-income countries, such as the UK and the US, do not get the minimum 150 minutes per week of physical activity recommended by most healthcare professionals . Everyone knows that exercise is healthy, but prescribing and selling it rarely works.
I think we can improve if we look beyond the strange world we live in to consider how our ancestors, as well as people from other cultures, manage to be physically active. This kind of evolutionary anthropological perspective reveals ten useless myths about exercise. Rejecting them won’t suddenly transform you into an Olympian, but they can help you turn a new page without feeling bad about yourself.
Myth 1: exercising is normal
Whenever you move to do something, you are doing a physical activity. Rather, exercise is a voluntary physical activity that is done for the sake of fitness. You may think that exercise is normal, but it is very modern behavior. Instead, for millions of years, humans were physically active for only two reasons: when it was necessary or rewarding. Necessary physical activities included getting food and doing other things to survive. Rewarding activities included playing, dancing, or training for fun or skill development. But no one in the stone age went for a five-mile jog to avoid decrepitude, or lifted weights whose sole purpose was to be lifted.
Myth 2: Avoiding effort means you are lazy.
Whenever I see an escalator next to a staircase, a little voice in my brain says, “Take the escalator.” Am I lazy? Although escalators did not exist in the past, that instinct is totally normal because physical activity costs calories that until recently were always in short supply (and still are for many people). When food is limited, every calorie expended on physical activity is a calorie that is not expended on other critical functions, such as maintaining our bodies, storing energy, and reproducing. Because natural selection ultimately only cares about how many descendants we have, our hunter-gatherer ancestors evolved to avoid unnecessary effort, exercise, unless it was rewarding. So don’t feel bad about the natural instincts that are still with us. Instead, accept that they are normal and difficult to overcome.
Myth 3: Sitting is the new smoking habit.
You’ve probably heard terrifying statistics that we sit too much and it’s killing us. Yes, too much physical inactivity is unhealthy, but let’s not demonize such normal behavior as sitting. People of all cultures sit a lot. Even hunter-gatherers without furniture sit for about 10 hours a day, as long as most Westerners. But there are less and less healthy ways to sit. Studies show that people who actively sit up every 10-15 minutes wake up their metabolism and enjoy better long-term health than those who sit inert for hours on end. Additionally, sitting during leisure time is more strongly associated with negative health outcomes than sitting during work time. So if you work all day in a chair, get up regularly, be fidgety, and try not to spend the rest of the day in a chair as well.
Myth 4: Our ancestors were hardworking, strong, and fast.
A common myth is that people unpolluted by civilization are amazing born athletes who are super strong, super fast, and capable of running marathons with ease. Is not true. Most hunter-gatherers are reasonably fit, but they are only moderately strong and not especially fast. Their lives are not easy, but on average they spend only two to three hours a day doing moderate to vigorous physical activity. It is neither normal nor necessary to be ultra fit and ultra strong.
Myth 5: you can’t lose weight by walking
Until recently, almost all weight loss programs included exercise. Recently, however, we keep hearing that we can’t lose weight with exercise because most workouts don’t burn as many calories and just make us hungry, which is why we eat more. The truth is, you can lose more weight much faster with diet rather than exercise, especially moderate exercise such as 150 minutes a week of brisk walking. However, longer durations and higher intensities of exercise have been shown to promote gradual weight loss. Regular exercise also helps prevent weight gain or regain it after dieting. Every diet benefits from including exercise.
Myth 6: running will wear down your knees.
Many people are afraid of running because they fear it will ruin their knees. These concerns are not entirely unfounded, as the knees are, in fact, the most common location for runners’ injuries. But knees and other joints are not like shock absorbers in a car that wear out with excessive use. Instead, running, walking, and other activities have been shown to keep knees healthy, and numerous high-quality studies show that runners are, if anything, less likely to develop knee osteoarthritis. The strategy to avoid knee pain is to learn to run properly and train sensibly (which means not increasing your mileage too quickly).
Myth 7: it’s normal to be less active as we get older.
After many decades of hard work, don’t you deserve to kick your heels and take it easy in your golden years? Not so. Despite rumors that our ancestors’ lives were unpleasant, brutal, and short, hunter-gatherers who survive infancy typically live for around seven decades and continue to work moderately as they age. The truth is that we evolved to be grandparents in order to be active in order to provide food for our children and grandchildren. In turn, staying physically active as we age stimulates a myriad of repair and maintenance processes that keep our bodies running. Numerous studies find that exercise is healthier as we age.
Myth 8: There is an optimal dose / type of exercise
One consequence of medicalizing exercise is that we prescribe it. But how much and of what kind? Many medical professionals follow the World Health Organization recommendation of at least 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes a week of vigorous exercise for adults. In truth, this is an arbitrary prescription because the amount of exercise depends on dozens of factors, including your physical condition, age, injury history, and health problems. Remember this: no matter how unfit you are, even a little exercise is better than nothing. Just one hour a week (eight minutes a day) can pay off substantial dividends. If you can do more that’s great, but very high doses produce no added benefit. It is also healthy to vary the types of exercise you do and to strength train regularly as you age.
Myth 9: ‘Just do it’ works
Let’s face it, most people don’t like exercise and have to overcome natural tendencies to avoid it. For most of us, telling us to “just do it” doesn’t work any better than telling a smoker or substance abuser to “just say no!” To promote exercise, we generally prescribe and sell it, but let’s remember that we evolved to be physically active for only two reasons: it was necessary or it was rewarding. So let’s find ways to do both: make it necessary and rewarding. Of the many ways to accomplish this, I think the best is to make exercise social. If you agree to meet up with friends for regular exercise, you’re bound to show up, have fun, and be active.
Myth 10: Exercise is a magic formula
Lastly, let’s not overdo exercise as medicine. Although we never evolved to exercise, we evolved to be physically active just as we evolved to drink water, breathe air, and have friends. Therefore, it is the absence of physical activity that makes us more vulnerable to many illnesses, both physical and mental. In the modern Western world we no longer have to be physically active, which is why we invented exercise, but it is not a magic bullet that guarantees good health. Fortunately, a little exercise can slow down the rate at which you age and substantially reduce your chances of contracting a wide range of diseases, especially as you age. It can also be fun, something we’ve all missed during this terrible pandemic.
Daniel E Lieberman is Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard. Y author of Exercised: The Science of Physical Activity, Rest, and the Pursuit of Health (Penguin, £ 9.99). Buy a copy for £ 9.29 at guardianbookshop.com
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism