Sedentary life is a relatively recent phenomenon, one that our bodies are not designed for. It is defined by the lack of regular physical activity and is one of the leading reasons for preventable diseases and deaths. These include chronic conditions like accelerated biological aging, low cardiorespiratory fitness, obesity, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, hypertension, stroke, congestive heart failure, deep vein thrombosis, cognitive dysfunction, depression and anxiety, osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, colon cancer, breast cancer, endometrial cancer, gestational diabetes, erectile dysfunction, or constipation. Scared enough?
We evolved to move
Regular movement is a vital attribute to a person’s well-being. It can improve your mood, increase your self-confidence, and energize you. It is incredibly empowering and can help you in areas of your life that have nothing to do with physical movement. It allows you to build grit, habits, practice self-care, make friends, or overcome challenges. It can help you to feel like part of a community. It makes you feel that you belong.
Whatever your physical activity is, rest assured that if you practice it regularly, you will be happier, have a greater sense of purpose, be more positive and hopeful.
Nature built us to move. Our biology is designed for us to move, and various chemicals in our body reward us when we move.
As neuroscientist Wolpert, Ghahramani, and Flanagan suggest, the entire purpose of the human brain is to produce movement. Movement is the only way we have of interacting with the world. All communication, including speech, sign language, gestures, and writing, is mediated via the motor system. All sensory and cognitive processes may be viewed as inputs that determine future motor outputs. Daniel Wolpert is using the example of a sea squirt. In the early period of its life, his marine invertebrate swims around. When it matures, it settles on a rock where it stays for the rest of its life waiting for food to drift by. The first thing it does after attaching to the rock is to consume its primitive brain. Since it won’t ever move again, it doesn’t need it anymore—a great example to support the theory that the brain is there primarily to facilitate movement.
Designed to run marathons
When it comes to running, anthropologist Daniel Lieberman and biologist Dennis Bramble suggest that humans have exceptional capabilities to run long distances in hot, arid conditions. This is in stark contrast to lack of these abilities in other primates and, in fact, in most mammals. Most mammals are good at short sprints to escape predators but are not well suited to endurance running. Surprisingly even those you would consider good at this, like dogs or horses, would struggle to keep up with trained humans running a marathon, especially in hot weather. Human running is mechanically comparable to trotting of quadrupeds. Top sprinters can run at 10 meters a second. Top marathoners can run at 5.5 meters a second, which is above the trotting speed of most quadrupeds, even though it is bellow galloping speed. But most mammals can’t gallop for an extended period. The combined trot-gallop transition speed of mammals is below a typical endurance running speed of four to six meters a second of humans. Dogs can trot long distances but overheat when galloping. Their trot-gallop transition speed is about 3.8 meters a second. Horses can outrun humans easily on short distances, but their galloping speed decreases quickly beyond ten to fifteen minutes. In the long run, they use a canter or slow gallop of about 5.8 meters a second.
In fact, there is an annual race, The Man Versus Horse Marathon, where runners compete against riders on horseback. With a length of 35 kilometers, it is a bit shorter than the real marathon and takes place in the Welsh town of Llanwrtyd Wells every June. Even though most years horses win, in a couple of years, it was the runners who were fastest. In 2007 Florian Holzinger ran it in two hours twenty minutes, while the fastest horse finished eleven minutes later in two hours thirty-one minutes.
Over the millennia, humans developed traits that help us effectively store and release energy in the legs, keep the body stable, and have a decent thermoregulatory system. All this emerged sometime around 2 million years ago with the advent of early hominids.
Using persistence hunting, where the humans follow an animal for several hours, keeping it above its trot-gallop transition, is an effective way to drive the prey to hyperthermia and then kill it in its weakened state. This type of hunting was documented among the Bushmen and is the only way early hominids could compete with other carnivores who were faster with bigger teeth and massive claws.
Some anthropologists claim that even human skeleton and muscle structure were pretty much made for running. It all comes down to gluteus maximus, the primary extensor muscle of the hip, and the largest and heaviest muscle in the body. Evidence for when the gluteus maximus became enlarged in human evolution is equivocal. Still, the muscle’s minimal functional role during walking supports the hypothesis that enlargement of the gluteus maximus was likely significant in the development of hominid running capabilities.
Benefits of exercise
Have you ever heard runners talking about the runner’s high? You can find a similar type of effect in any sport that requires you to perform a prolonged physical activity with significant effort. This exercise-related euphoria, specifically in endurance running, has its roots in our early days as hunters and gatherers. The gratification we experience today during these activities may have been a matter of survival in the early days. The trick is to run at the correct pace. Walking doesn’t work. Sprinting at an exhaustive pace doesn’t work either. You need the right speed. The speed the hunters and gatherers would use.
Exercising and generally, any type of movement shouldn’t be seen as an optional act of self-indulgence. It is a necessity for both your physical and mental health.
Svenia Schnyder and Christoph Handschin summarized research in the study of muscle as an endocrine organ and provided suggestions as to what benefits exercise has for our well-being. The human body contains around 600 muscles. That is a lot of power. And not just power. Muscle plays a vital role not only in movement but also in maintaining body temperature. And there is more.
Myokines, sometimes called exercise hormones, are proteins that your muscles release into your bloodstream during exercise. As researchers point out, your muscles act as an endocrine organ. Regular exercise has a positive effect on all areas of your body, even if, at first glance, they have nothing to do with muscles. Myokines help your muscles grow stronger, regulate your blood sugar, prevent depression and anxiety, metabolize neurotoxic chemicals that cause stress, and even inhibit cancer cells.
A meta-analysis of 39 studies with 12,820 records for adults older than 50 showed that exercise improves cognitive functions regardless of whether it is aerobic or resistance training, as long as it was of at least moderate intensity on as many days of the week as possible.
Another meta-analysis focused on finding a relation between exercise and sleep. Statistically significant differences were found that showed that regular exercise has a positive effect on the quality of the sleep.
And yet another meta-analysis focused on the effects of resistance exercise training on anxiety. The analysis summarized 16 studies with 922 participants and proved that resistance exercise training significantly improves anxiety symptoms. This effect works for both healthy participants as well as those with a physical or mental illness.
Pushing yourself hard during exercise to overcome your perceived limits will make you feel brave and confident. When you endure more than you previously thought you could endure, you realize that the limits you thought you have are not there. You don’t know what your limits are and so you don’t get limited by them.
It is an incredibly empowering feeling when you stretch yourself. You run a couple of miles, get more and more tired, start to feel short of breath, your legs are in pain, and you keep going. Instead of stopping, you keep running a couple more miles. In the end, you are totally spent. You are exhausted. And you are proud. You managed to do something really tough that you never thought you could do. You are tough, and you know you can do it again. Next time you encounter a tough situation, you are more confident and braver when dealing with it.
Putting it all together
To use your body and mind as nature intended and to use all the benefits exercise brings, you need to make it part of your daily routine. Similarly to any other habit, it is going to take you a couple of months to build. Still, once you get going, the addictiveness will kick in. It is going to be easier to get out every day and move. The reward will come in the form of better physical and mental health. You will feel stronger, more energetic, more courageous. You will feel better about yourself and your life. You will be ready to tackle any adversity with a hopeful outlook, and you will limit any depression and anxiety. And if you can find a small group of like-minded individuals and exercise together, you will also improve your social life and get an additional kick out of the time spent exercising.
What is your take on the topic? Do you exercise regularly? What benefits of regular movement do you experience? Have you ever been in an exercise withdrawal? Have you ever experienced runner’s high?
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