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Move! A message from our ancestors

Updated: Apr 9, 2023

Our bodies were designed and evolved to move. In order to survive our species required mobility. In early days we had to move to find and secure our source of food and water. Our ancestors had to hunt, they had to gather, and then around 10, 000 years ago they began to farm. When faced with predators our human forebears had to fight and defend. Movement and physical activity was normal and a regular part of day to day existence and necessary for survival.

By the Industrial revolution, things began to change. Mechanisation started the reduction in physical activity, as labour saving devices and processes developed. Fast track to today, we now live in a world where physical activity has become much more optional than it used to be. But physical activity is important for health. So now people have to do this really weird modern behaviour- exercise.

In his book “Exercised”, Professor Daniel Liebermann a biological anthropologist defines the difference between exercise and activity.

Physical activity is any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that expends energy. (Physiologists call this Non Exercise Activated Theromogenesis -NEAT)

Exercise is a voluntary physical activity that is planned, structured, repetitive and undertaken to sustain or improve health and fitness.

So just a hundred years ago, we know that people were much more physically active than they are today. And in many parts of the world, of course, people are still very physically active. It's only in a few, so called WEIRD (western educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) countries that activity levels have dropped. And it’s in these countries that exercise has become “normalised” as a means to give our bodies the physical work that they require to maintain healthy function.

Recently researches have looked at existing cultures that resemble traditional hunter gatherer societies. The Hadza of Tanzania are one of the last hunting and gathering populations on the planet. Evolutionary anthropologists have been studying this society determining what the activity and energy expenditure profile looks like and how this reflects on the people’s health status.

Not surprisingly, these tribes don’t have the chronic disease that is seen in modern industrialised countries. They don't get heart disease. They don't get diabetes. They're never overweight. Further, they're happy to eat whatever they can get, and they don't intentionally go out to exercise. When researches look at traditional hunter gatherer societies, exercise does not exist. Indeed, humans have evolved to reserve energy and avoid unnecessary or unrewarding physical activity, especially when food is scarce. Any, additional activity extraneous to sourcing food was limited and would serve a purpose. Teaching hunting or fighting skills and communicating cultural stories in ritualised dance practice are such examples.

Although the Hadza aren’t moving intentionally to exercise, they are extremely active. In this community, men and women get 13,000 to 19,000 steps a day on average, and they get about 120 minutes or so of moderate vigorous activity every day. Depending on how you measure it, that's about four times more activity than the average American every single day.

You would think that with our propensity to sit in our technologically advanced communities that we would sit for longer. Research from Dr Herman Potzer and Dr Dave Raichlen into traditional Hadza society found that they sit on average 10 hours a day, which turns out to be pretty much the average for us WEIRD bunch. The Hadza however, squat or kneel when sitting, that reduces the time that they are immobile. The difference in modern society is that many people sit to work all day, and then engage in sedentary behaviour as leisure time after work, from driving to watching TV or on other screened devices.

In WEIRD cultures people stay seated for a longer period of time (because of their comfortable chairs), on average 40 minutes. Hunter gatherer societies stay seated (squatting, kneeling) for an average of 10-15 minutes at a time. Research is indicating that standing up more frequently maintains metabolic health. This is because every time you get up, you're not using a lot of energy, but it’s like you are turning your body’s cells on. One engages muscles that use up sugar in your blood. You also use up some of the circulating fatty acids and triglycerides in your bloodstream and this all contributes to better metabolic health. It would appear that it’s not so much about how many hours of the day you sit, but how you sit and how long those bouts of sitting are. And of course, what you do when you're not sitting.

Move for quality longevity

In the forementioned book “Exercised”, the author Daniel Lieberman highlights the need to remain active even as one ages. The evidence shows that hunter gatherers stay physically active, even in their later years. They are part of an intergenerational system of cooperation where they assist in childcare and food sharing. Foraging populations from Australia to South America remain active through life, hunting and gathering more calories than they consume, which they provide to younger generation.

According to measurements by Kristen Hawkes and colleagues, a typical Hadza mother forages about four hours a day, while grandmothers forage on average five to six hours a day. Overall they work longer hours than mothers do. And just as grandmothers spend seven hours foraging and preparing food, grandfathers continue to hunt, and climb tress to collect honey and fruit ! Indeed research show that they travel just as far as younger men.

In the USA women aged 18-40, walk 5,756 steps/ day, but this number drops precipitously with age, and by the time they are in their seventies, American woman take roughly half as many steps. While American woman are half as active in their seventies as in their forties, Hadza woman walk twice as much per day as Americans, with only modest declines as they age. In addition, heart rate monitors showed that elderly Hadza woman actually spend more of their day engaged in moderate to vigorous activity than younger woman who were still having children.

Not surprisingly hard work keeps elderly hunter gatherers fit. One of the most reliable measures of age related fitness is walking speed- a measure that correlates strongly with life expectancy. The average American woman under fifty walks 0.92m/ second, but slows considerably to 0.67m/ second by her sixties. Thanks to an active lifestyle without retirement, there is no significant age related decline in walking speed among Hadza woman, who average 1.1m/ second well into their seventies. Overall, hunter-gatherers attain higher levels of strength and fitness than typical post-industrial Westerners and lose their capacity at a slower rate, remaining reasonably vigorous into older age. Not surprisingly, debilitating muscle loss is not a problem amongst foragers. The notion that we become less active and fit with age is obviously a construct of our industrialised world and needn’t be the case!

The science is clear, exercise slows the aging process (also called senescence) and makes you less vulnerable to disease. It's not just about how long you live, but the quality of those years that matter. The key benefit of physical activity is it slows senescence and reduces your vulnerability to a wide range of chronic non-infectious diseases that reduce the quality of your life. Heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer's, just to name a few. Nothing comes as close to physical activity in terms of the benefits for mind and body.

A Vital Approach To Movement

  1. Change how you think about exercise and activity! Rather than being a burden or imposition, reframe your activity as an opportunity to look, feel and be your best.

  2. Firstly, do what you enjoy and feels right for your body. Progress slowly, incrementally and do what is sustainable. Remember it is what you generally do, not occasionally, that reaps the benefits.

  3. Find more opportunities to move! How can you increase incidental activity through your day? This might include walking to the shops, conducting a walk and talk meeting, standing when taking calls or any other strategy to reduce and break up sitting postures through your day.

  4. Once you have a regular routine around activity, explore all the components of fitness and “balance your activity bank”. Am I doing adequate cardiovascular activity, resistance training, mobility, stability and balance training for my needs? Ask your trainer for guidance

  5. Connect with how your body and mind feels after your exercise sessions. If we rely solely on future weight loss and health benefits to motivate us, our drive to stay active can wane. Checking in to the “here and now benefits” will assist in developing your intrinsic muscle to move regularly and feel great.

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