The Evolutionary Origin of Exercise Mismatch Issue#2

July 20, 2022

Hawaiian island beach

Why do so many people struggle to exercise consistently? Or exercise at all?

Goethe said if you want to understand something, go to the origin.

If we want to understand our deepest motivations, we return again to human evolutionary history.

If you recall, our earliest ancestors lived in lush jungles and rainforests. A giant salad bowl with literally low-hanging fruit and tender plants.

Food was easy to come by. But, life was dangerous. We were small (Males were about 4 feet tall and less than 100 pounds. Females were even smaller.). We did not have big fangs or claws. We spent most of our time in trees with our social group or tribe. We slept in trees. Big powerful hungry cats like leopards stalked us constantly.

When we did walk on the ground, we walked bi-pedally.

Then, if you recall, about 3-4 million years ago, our earth began to get colder and drier. Glaciers formed in the north.

By 2.5 million years ago, those lush jungles filled with fruit (the chimp / Lucy diet) began to thin out. Our ancestral environment became more and more savannah-like

Our ancestors now had to work a lot harder for their food. They had to walk more and more miles searching for a deserted carcass to scavenge with crude stone tools. Or, they had to dig up tough fibrous tubers with a sharpened stick.

Food was hard-earned. It required miles of walking or hours of hard digging. As a result, conserving energy became deeply ingrained.

Finding enough food-energy was literally an exhausting matter of life and death. And the driving force was always Darwinian reproduction: to generate offspring before their short lives (about 20 years) were over.

As our ancestors evolved into hunter-gatherers, we became more proficient hunters and foragers. Our lifespan slowly grew.

Small groups of males walked about 10 miles a day, every day, aggressive scavenging and now, more often, hunting for meat. If they were lucky enough to kill a big antelope like a Kudu, they had to chop it up (thousands of bones with cut-marks are common fossils) with razor sharp stone tools made of volcanic glass like obsidian, and carry heavy chunks of meat miles back to camp.

Females provided a more stable foundation of calories. Small groups of women walked miles and dug for hours for tough, fibrous potato-like tubers. As they worked in the hot sun, they ate raw tubers. They gathered up their harvest of tubers and walked miles back to camp. Our female ancestors walked at least 5 miles every day often carrying (and nursing) an infant.

About a million years ago, our ancestors learned how to control fire. Now they could cook their tubers which made them more tender, easier to digest, and increased nutrition access by a factor of 2 to 3. If the men were lucky enough to have a successful hunt, the little tribe of 20 or 30 hunter-gatherers feasted on roasted antelope meat and fat.

As a result of this hard-working way of life, our hunter-gatherer ancestors were lean and fit. Every single day of their demanding lives was a strenuous calorie-burning, fat-burning workout.

This was our ancestors’ way of life for literally millions of years.

Is the mismatch becoming obvious?

Millions of years of daily struggle walking at least 5 to 10 miles a day in search of enough to eat ingrained in us the instinct to conserve energy.

Daily life for many 21st century Americans is no more strenuous than driving a car to work and sitting at a desk. After a workday and a frustrating commute home in traffic, our first thought when we get home is not lacing on our Nikes and jogging 5 miles.

The couch and the T.V. speak deeply and compellingly to our millions of years old instinct to conserve energy.

I can still vividly recall my Dad arriving home from work. This was the mid-1950’s. We would break out the T.V. tables, arrange them in a semi-circle around the T.V., and settle in to eating T.V. dinners, or mac-n-cheese, or hot dogs and canned beans all while watching our favorite T.V. series.

After dinner including a desert such as ice cream and cookies, both my parents lit up cigarettes. We settled in to watch T.V. until Johnnie Carson went off at 1 am.  

To escape the gravitational pull of this scenario (or a more updated version of pizza delivery and soda) takes real effort in today’s America.

Is it any wonder that the vast majority of Americans are overweight? Or that obesity and type-2 diabetes is rampant and accelerating?

It takes education, understanding and willpower to escape the pull of millions of years of Darwinian survival instinct to conserve energy (to stay alive and reproduce) combined with incredible access to virtually unlimited, addictive, calorie-dense food.

We have to learn and buy into the benefits of at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise (preferably full body aerobic exercise like walking with Heavy Hands) 3 to 5 times a week. 

Decades of exercise research substantiates the increase in our energy and alertness, the improvement in our cognition and memory, our stronger immune system, our healthier bones, our lowered stress levels, and our sounder sleep.

It takes courage to begin a program of regular exercise. It takes willpower to stick with it. It takes weeks to begin to see and feel the benefits. It takes months for the benefits to show up in our blood panels.

It takes time and dedication, depending upon our personalities, to establish a consistent pattern. Some people like me are more introverted and enjoy solitary exercise. Others who are more outgoing and gregarious enjoy a more social experience like a yoga class or a health club.

It’s like the ancient adage: Know thy self.

As you begin to get into the swing of regular exercise and get to know yourself better, believe it or not, exercise can actually become fun.

As I may have mentioned before, I live in Southern California. I time my beach walk so I am finishing up as the sun begins to set.  

Emulating Thoreau, I try to live my life deliberately. On purpose.

My workout complete, the sun slowly setting in the west, I feel deeply grateful to be able to enjoy the gift of moments like this.

As I cool down walking back to my condo, I feel calm and peaceful. After my shower, I feel renewed.  

As T.S. Eliot said: “Build a life to rejoice in”.

Build a positive feedback loop. Walks in a beautiful natural setting. Or working out with a group of friends.  

Over time, you just might get hooked on how great you feel, how great you look. Find your own personal motivation.

For decades, I had a longer-term motivation. I was training for my next great hike such as: a round trip to the summit of Mt Whitney, or a rim-to-rim hike across the magnificent Grand Canyon, or hike the trail from Snowmass over the Buckskin Pass to the Maroon Bells in Colorado.

To me, these are some of the joys of being in great shape: being able to hike 15 to 20 miles a day in magnificent natural beauty. Or paddling a kayak the 17 miles of the Na Pali Coast in Kauai.

Being in great shape expands your world and your joy. Walking with Heavy Hands is a key that can unlock that world for you. Another key is putting the highest quality protein into your and your family’s body twice a day in the form of JDD shakes.  

Thank you for joining me in this great adventure called life.