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Getting Your Inner Caveman Off the Couch

The Flintstones had all sorts of humorous labor-saving devices—a dinosaur lawn mower, a mastodon vacuum cleaner and so forth. But in reality, our ancient ancestors worked hard to survive. Anthropologists tell us this might be why it’s so hard to get ourselves moving, even if we know that physical activity is healthy for us.

Are you one of those people who simply loves to exercise? Would you rather spend an hour on the treadmill than binge a couple episodes of your favorite program? Maybe a trip to the gym is more of a treat than going to a restaurant?

If that describes you, congratulations! But if doesn’t, you’re certainly not alone. For most people, exercise can seem like a chore, and it sometimes takes more willpower than they can muster.

Why is Exercising So Difficult To Do?

Don’t blame yourself—blame our species! Scientists say certain inborn factors tempt us to avoid exercise—factors we may have inherited from our ancestors of long ago. Researchers from the University of Geneva in Switzerland used imaging to observe the brains of test subjects who were making the decision between physical activity and doing nothing. “A struggle breaks out between the desire to do nothing and the physical activity,” reports sport psychologist Boris Cheval. And it turns out that exercise often loses the conflict.

Why does our lazy side often win? Cheval and his team explained that the human brain evolved when our ancient ancestors had to work hard for their calories. Avoiding unnecessary activity increased their chance of survival. Hunting for meat and foraging for plant food took a lot of effort. They certainly had no need to join a gym! But modern humans in industrialized nations seldom get enough physical activity for good health without making an effort to get it. And inactivity can lead to heart disease, obesity, diabetes and a host of other health problems.

Not only our bodies, but also our brains suffer from our mostly sedentary lifestyle. University of Arizona researchers say clues can be found once again with our ancient ancestors. Their brains required a combination of mental and physical exercise. “Foraging is an incredibly complex cognitive behavior,” explains anthropologist David Raichlen. “You’re moving on a landscape, you’re using memory not only to know where to go but also to navigate your way back, you’re paying attention to your surroundings. You’re multitasking the entire time because you’re making decisions while you’re paying attention to the environment, while you are also monitoring your motor systems over complex terrain.”

Experts can even see this effect in action today among non-industrialized populations. In May 2021, scientists from University of Southern California studied the Tsimane indigenous people of Bolivia, whose lifestyles haven’t changed as radically from the way our ancestors lived generations ago. The Tsimane are very active, spending their days hunting, gathering and fishing. The USC researchers did CT scans of Tsimane volunteers, and found that they experienced 70% slower brain shrinkage than people in Western populations.

Our Brains Have Evolved to Need More Exercise

Exercise also keeps our bones strong—and our caveman ancestors offer some clues here, as well. A research team from the University of Cambridge compared human skeletons from 7,000 years ago with those of modern humans, and found that modern bones are significantly lighter and weaker. Is that due to genetic changes? In fact, said study co-author Dr. Colin Shaw, there is no anatomical reason that a person born today couldn’t have bones as strong as cavemen. “It’s only in the last, say, 50 to 100 years that we’ve been so sedentary,” says Dr. Shaw. “Sitting in a car or in front of a desk is not what we have evolved to do. We are not challenging our bones with enough loading, predisposing us to have weaker bones so that, as we age, situations arise where bones are breaking when, previously, they would not have.”

Dr. Shaw says that a more active lifestyle provides bone health benefits. “Hip fractures, for example, don’t have to happen simply because you get older, if you build your bone strength up earlier in life so that as you age it never drops below that level where fractures can easily occur,” he says.

So, give your inner caveman a pep talk! Find motivation that works for you. Exercise with a friend or take a class. Find activities you enjoy; it doesn’t take running or calisthenics to give us a good workout. The University of Arizona experts remind us that activities using our brains and bodies together are especially good—everything from dancing to ping pong.

Cheval says our civilized environment could also use some improvement. “Physical activity should be encouraged instead of putting temptations in the way to do less, such as escalators or elevators,” he says. “For instance, we could modify the way public spaces are designed to reduce the opportunities for individuals to engage spontaneously in behavior associated with minimizing effort.”

Talk to your doctor about an exercise program that is right for you. It might take a little extra effort these days, with some facilities closed during the pandemic. But it’s worth it for the health benefits—even if you don’t come home with a mastodon for supper.

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