DANIEL LIEBERMAN: Treadmills are really weird. They’re a weird, modern piece of equipment that we spend big bucks on, and we spend big bucks going to a gym – it makes you work really hard to stay in the same place. “It’s the apotheosis of exercise.” Imagine a treadmill, right? We think treadmills are synonymous with exercise, but it’s a noisy, expensive machine that makes you work really, really hard for no other purpose than to get you moving without getting anywhere. Most of us, when we’re forced to sit on a treadmill, we’re listening to a podcast or music, we’re watching something on our iPhones, or whatever to make it bearable. My name is Dan Lieberman. I’m Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University and author of “Exercised” why something we never evolved to do is healthy and rewarding.
The very first treadmills were probably invented by the Romans or even some other ancient peoples to move wheels and the like. But the real genesis of the modern treadmill comes from Victorian prisons. They were invented sometime in the 19th century by a man named William Cubitt to prevent prisoners in England, like debtor’s prisons, from relaxing and enjoying themselves. So they made prisoners trudge on these big slat-like treadmills for hours to make them uncomfortable being in prison. And of course, people still stomp on treadmills unless they do it of their own accord, but many of them still find it a form of torture. I don’t know anyone who really enjoys standing on a treadmill.
OLD TELEVISION SEGMENT: “It’s easy to squeeze into shapely hips and thighs.”
Dear man: So many modern forms of exercise are like cod liver oil – they’re not really comfortable.
OLD TELEVISION SEGMENT: ‘Extra sunshine for us in winter and spring.’
LIEBERMAN: We do them because they’re good for us.
OLD TELEVISION SEGMENT: ‘Come on, go, go!’
Dear man: But it’s no fun.
OLD TELEVISION SEGMENT: “Make your muscles cry.”
Dear man: And so it’s like taking your medicine. It’s important to distinguish between physical activity and movement – so physical activity is just movement. You do everything: go shopping, get your groceries and take them to your car, that’s physical activity. Sweeping the kitchen floor is physical activity. But exercise is voluntary, voluntary physical activity for the benefit of health and fitness.
The word exercise comes from the Latin “exercitatio” and means “to train”. We’re still doing math practice. For example, plowing a field would be considered an exercise in a sort of early English. Or soldiers do exercises to get fit. On the other hand, it also means to be trained, to be angry, to be confused, to be anxious, to be kind of worried. You know, we get exercised through our math practice. In the modern world, many people are confused when it comes to exercise. It is difficult for them, they are not sure how much they should do, there are all sorts of myths about it.
OLD TELEVISION SEGMENT: “The burning is a signal that your muscles are working harder than they should.”
Dear man: Most people don’t do it because they want to, they do it because it helps ward off death and old age. By shedding the light on evolution and using a sort of anthropological perspective, my goal is to help people exercise less.
OLD TELEVISION SEGMENT: “Right, left, right, left. Walking is one of the greatest exercises for people of all ages.”
LIBERMAN: If there’s one physical activity humans evolved to do, it’s walking. Walking is the way people get around, get food. It’s kind of fundamental to who is as a species. Today, in the modern western world, with cars and escalators and elevators and Zoom and TV and all that stuff, we just don’t walk much. You know, the average hunter-gatherer takes maybe 10-15,000 steps a day. The average American was taking about 4,700+ steps a day before the pandemic. So much less than our ancestors.
One of the ways we medicalize exercise in the western world is that we think there’s a certain amount you should be doing, right? We prescribe it. “You should take two aspirins, sleep eight hours, and walk 10,000 steps a day.” We like that, don’t we? There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a destination, right? Goals can be really helpful. But 10,000 steps is kind of arbitrary. The number actually dates back to when the first pedometer was invented in Japan before the 1960s Olympics. In the boardroom, they tried to decide what to call it. It turns out that 10,000 is a very promising number in Japan, and they thought it sounded kind of good, it kind of made sense, so they called it the 10,000 step monitor – and it stuck. Surprisingly, it turns out that 10,000 steps is actually not a bad goal. If you actually look at what people are doing in non-Western societies, 10,000 steps isn’t that far off. So it’s a perfectly reasonable target to shoot at, but there’s nothing special about it. If you take 8,000 steps, that’s fine; If you take 15,000 steps, that’s fine. The most important thing is to be physically active because some is better than nothing and a little more is better than that. But you know, it’s all good. There is no magic number. It’s not a U-shaped curve with a bottom on it where it tells you what to aim for. That does not exist.
I mean, every culture has sports, right? It is a human universal. Sports are important. They fulfill all sorts of functions. There are many wonderful things about being on a team and especially as a kid you learn good sportsmanship. If someone scores a goal against you, it’s not appropriate to smack them in the face, that sort of thing. You learn hierarchy, you learn camaraderie, you learn to cooperate. But some sports also have a different origin. It is no coincidence that many sports, for example in the ancient Olympics, were skills that really mattered to warriors. You know, javelin throwing and chariot racing. Well, we don’t do chariot races anymore. Sprinting, wrestling, boxing, right? These are all very physically demanding sports that are somehow related to combat. Exercise, I think, also evolved to help us learn not to be “reactive aggressive” — sort of an instantaneous type of unplanned aggression. I mean, the extreme for me is tennis.
ANGRY TENNIS PLAYER: ‘You can’t be serious!’
Dear man: You can’t even wear them when you play tennis.
ANGRY TENNIS PLAYER: “We don’t get a point deducted because this guy is an incompetent fool. You know that? That’s him.’
Dear man: Road rage is a perfect example of reactive aggression.
MIDNIGHT COWBOY MOVIE LINE: “I go here, I go here. On yours, you nutcase!’
Dear man: But there is also “proactive aggression” when you plan something, deliberately plan it, work it out in advance. War is an example of proactive aggression. Sport is sometimes also a kind of proactive aggression. It’s perfectly acceptable to be reasonably proactively aggressive as long as you play by the rules. And that’s what people excel at. We are better than most species at containing reactive aggression, although not as often, but we are capable of exceptional proactive aggression. You know, every now and then there’s a mass shooting and there’s kind of a standard response. Everyone says, “Oh my god, how could that person do that? I go to church with him and whatever. Just a nice person, etc.” But we confuse reactive aggression with proactive aggression. Hitler was a vegetarian, but of course one of the most proactively aggressive people who ever lived.
We should not confuse these two different types of aggression. Our bodies weren’t designed, they weren’t engineered, they’re not machines – they evolved. So if you want to understand why our brain works the way it does, why our feet work the way it does, why we walk, why our immune system works the way it works, then the only explanation for these kinds of questions is an evolutionary question. There’s an old saying, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” I would say that nothing about human behavior makes sense except in the light of culture and anthropology, and we also need to understand the cultural component of our behavior.
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