Myths and truths about physical exercise for elders – Harvard professor
Daniel E. Lieberman is a paleoanthropologist at Harvard University Edwin M Lerner II, where he is Professor of Biological Sciences and Professor in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology. He is best known for his research on the evolution of the human body.
There are so many myths about exercise, it’s hard to know where to start.
One myth is that our ancestors were really incredibly strong.
That there is a trade-off between speed and power.
That it’s normal to be less physically active as you get older.
That there is a perfect type of exercise.
The perfect amount of exercise.
It became very clear to me that many people exercise.
So I wanted to write a book to try to debunk a lot of myths about physical activity and exercise using the lenses of evolution and anthropology.
If there is any physical activity that humans have evolved for, it is walking.
Walking is the most basic form of human physical activity.
The average hunter-gatherer walked 10,000-15,000 steps a day.
The average person, before the pandemic, took something like 4,700 – 5,000 steps a day.
Only about 20% of us get the minimum level of physical exercise that every health organization in the world considers to be the minimum for an adult, which is 150 minutes a week.
So 80% of us really struggle but fail to get the required amount of exercise, but almost everyone says they want to get enough exercise.
We live in a world where we no longer need to be physically active.
Now, in a very strange way, we have to choose to be physically active, and that is not so easy because there were no elliptical bikes and other types of machines in the Stone Age.
If you want to get your heart rate up, you’re probably running.
And one of the biggest myths about running is that it will destroy your knees.
There are tons and tons of studies, more than a dozen randomized controlled trials, that show that people who run more are less likely to get arthritis.
In fact, a lot of research shows that physical activities like running actually cause joints to repair themselves and stay healthy.
The other types of damage caused by running are due to the fact that we no longer know how to run properly.
I think running is a skill like swimming or throwing, or all kinds of other things we do.
And the other thing is when people run in other cultures, especially in the stone age, they didn’t run every day and they didn’t run regularly and they probably ran once a week or something like that.
So the idea of running five, six times a week long distances on the pavement, etc., that’s all kind of weird, Western stuff, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with it, but you have to learn how to do it right.
The wrong way
I think the most unhealthy, worst, most problematic, and most worrying way we think about exercise in the Western world is that as people age, it’s normal to be less physically active.
We know that strength declines rapidly as we age.
In their 60s and 70s, humans are quite frail, but hunter-gatherers remain quite physically active as they age because they do various things.
They have to lift things and carry things and do things that keep them strong.
And the bottom line is that they maintain that strength, and that strength is important because one of the real, unhealthiest problems of aging is a problem called “Sarcopenia.”
Sarco is “flesh” and penia is “loss” – it is the loss of muscle mass.
As people age in the West, they tend to lose a lot of strength and power, and this makes basic tasks difficult.
And when that happens, people become less active.
When they become less active, they become less fit.
And it sets in motion a truly disastrous vicious cycle.
As we age, strength training becomes more and more important so that we can avoid those losses in strength that are really important for maintaining health and staying strong and healthy as we age.
We are a unique species, evolving to live long after we stop reproducing.
We often think about the effects of physical activity on lifespan, how long you live.
Before modern medicine, what determined how long you lived was actually how healthy you were, your health span.
And so health is really the key
And what physical activity does is it increases your health span, and therefore your health span will increase your life span.
So, as we age, let’s not cut back on physical activity.
Let’s hold it, let’s do some strength, let’s do some resistance.
The evidence is indisputable.
There’s a lot of data that shows that as we get older, more physical activity is really beneficial.
Many studies have shown the same thing – that physical activity as you get older is more, not less, important for keeping you healthy.