Hitting the Books: Exercised, by Daniel Lieberman

By Coach Mike Flanagan

Earlier this month, Harvard biologist Daniel Lieberman started a media tour for Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding, a book that takes a look at the science and practice of exercise through an evolutionary lens, and tries to answer in equal parts why, and how, we exercise—or fail to.
Not surprisingly, it was the concept of not exercising that spoke to many reviewers; most headline writers went for some version of “Why We Hate to Exercise—It’s Evolution!!!”   But what jumped out to me, both in this book review from the New York Times and this interview with Dr. Lieberman in the Harvard Gazette–was actually the opposite—a fairly clear and concise description for why I don’t hate exercising any more—at least not the way we think about it at Mountain Strength.   Here’s why:
  • We’re social creatures.  While it’s true that we “never evolved to exercise,” in the sense of exercising as “voluntary physical activity for the sake of health and fitness,” Lieberman also points out that we did evolve “to be physically active when it was . . . socially rewarding.”  Exercising in groups, in other words, is inherently more fun, and therefore taps into motivators that long sessions on a treadmill will not.
  • We’re less likely to break promises to others than ones we make to ourselves.  Lieberman argues that we evolved to move and to be active when it was necessary, and even if we’re no longer living as hunter-gatherers, we can still tap into that sense of necessity via communal obligation.  In my case, I can go for a jog any time that I want, but that means “any time” can just as soon become “tomorrow,” “next week,” or “never.”  But if I’ve reserved a slot for 8:30 class on Sunday, or to run with friends after work, my “someday/maybe” has become a social—and public—commitment, and one that I’m much less likely to break.
  • Even a little goes a long way.    According to Lieberman, “Dose response curves show that just 150 minutes of exercise a week — only 21 minutes a day — lowers mortality rates by about 50 percent.”  And he also suggests that “a mix of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, strength training and high-intensity interval training . . . is probably the best bet for most of us.”  That’s just 2-3 classes a week, with a bit of “active recovery” and light aerobic work in between.      Not enough for the CrossFit Games, to be sure, but plenty to keep you on a path towards health.
Finally, as we start to turn the corner from January to February, and the glow is starting to fade on some of our New Year’s resolutions, we can take some solace in Lieberman’s reminder that a certain amount of resistance to exercise is completely natural.  His advice?  “Don’t be mad at yourself. Don’t feel bad for not wanting to exercise. .. [but] be compassionate [with] yourself and understand that those little voices in your head are normal and that all of us, even ‘exercise addicts,’ struggle with them.  A key to exercising is to overcome them,” he says, and we can do that by working out with our friends.


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