Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding, by Daniel E. Lieberman. Pantheon Books, 2020. Reviewed by trail runner Laura Clark. Laura is an avid mountain, trail and snowshoe runner who lives in Saratoga Springs, NY, where she is a children’s librarian.
How many of us are exercised (read: upset, agitated) because of exercise? How many folks know exercise is “good” for them, but just can’t seem to summon up the willpower despite the well-known consequences like high blood pressure, heart attacks and diabetes that lack of exertion encourages? Surprisingly, Daniel Liberman, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, and the brains behind the popular Born to Run movement, claims that our aversion to exercise per se is totally natural, as humans were designed to funnel their energy towards sustenance and procreation.
That is the reason why shaming and pure logic do not work. We are running into the wall of our natural instincts. It was a great relief to me to discover that I do not necessarily have to swing for one of those fancy standing desks. Sitting is not the new smoking. In fact, from his studies of the Tanzanian Hadza hunter-gatherer tribe, he estimates that they spend approximately ten hours a day sitting around, socializing, preparing food and clothes, taking care of children. Their exercise is restricted to necessary hunting and gathering duties. It almost seems as if they were Born to Rest and not Born to Run.
Our modern-day dilemma is that a car trip to the grocery store does not constitute a hunting/gathering expedition, even though with the recent COVID shortages it may seem that way. So how do we overcome our natural couch potato urge to get in our necessary daily steps? Certainly not with a Fitbit or other device which, once the novelty has worn off, only serves to layer on the guilt. The key is to make exercise either necessary or socially rewarding. Witness those in the initial throes of a born again wake-up call after a brush with a heart attack. But that only goes so far. The key, then, is to make voluntary exercise fun as our ancestors did when dancing or undertaking sporting competitions.
Socially rewarding activities are the way to go as humans are basically group animals. Hence, the commitment of running clubs and buddies, as well as the lure of the before and after activities attached to sporting events, whether an Expo, chance at a raffle prize, or simply a detour for a celebratory beer. And, in this day of socially distancing, Strava and Facebook.
Before reading Lieberman’s book, I had always felt rather smug about my desire to get outdoors no matter what the weather. I simply enjoy the physical act of running in the woods, whether alone or with others. But now I get it. Before COVID I attended a twice-a-week weight class and while it was not my favorite thing to do, I attended for two reasons: I had laid down the money and I liked to see my friends. Now the class has been disbanded and while I know stretches are good for me I haven’t lifted a single weight since March. I delude myself that lugging around race stuff, groceries and digging in the garden and shoveling snow is enough. But it’s obviously not. I need a new strategy – perhaps as Lieberman suggests, rewarding myself. Stickers on a calendar, anyone?