The evolution of exercise

What we can learn from our ancestors about the essential role of fitness in human survival.

Nearly 60 per cent of Australian adults are classed as either insufficiently active or inactive. Our ancestors were arguably fitter than us – physical activity was imperative to survive the elements, defend resources and hunt and forage for food.

According to David Raichlen, Associate Professor at the University of Arizona School of Anthropology, fossil records suggest that we evolved to be active. “There was a shift in anatomy around 1.8 million years ago, where we start to see lengthening of the lower limbs and changes in foot anatomy that would have supported endurance behaviours like long-distance walking and possibly running,” he says.

While the technological advances that led to the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution and most recently the digital age have made life more convenient, they have dramatically reduced our need for physical exertion.


What’s changed for the better?

On the flipside to our increasingly sedentary lifestyles, we have made progress in our understanding of how best to stay healthy and fit.

“Physical activity recommendations have evolved to look at not just exercise, but all the activities we do in daily living such as housework, gardening, walking and sitting less, as well as strength training, and how together all that affects our health,” says Dr Josephine Chau, researcher at the University of Sydney’s Prevention Research Collaboration.

Workplace ‘move more, sit less’ interventions such as walking meetings and sit-stand desks are another positive change. Another milestone? The advent of fitness apps and trackers, which provide real-time feedback and spur us to achieve activity goals.


Future trends in fitness

The traditional machine-centric gym is being gradually replaced by dynamic movement training that mimics more natural movement patterns.

It’s also likely that the focus will shift away from long blocks of structured exercise towards more achievable short bursts of activity. “Even exercising for 10 or 15 minutes a day greatly moves the dial on a whole host of chronic diseases,” notes Raichlen.


Fitness takeaways from our ancestors

  • Think holistic – there’s no caveman workout, but the lifestyle of the hunter-gatherer was varied, so aim for a mixed, whole-body approach to fitness.
  • Tune in to your body – we’re evolutionarily geared to evaluate the cost-versus-benefit of exerting ourselves, so it makes sense to choose an activity you enjoy.
  • Seek out movement opportunities – before cars, microwave meals and emails, getting places, preparing food and even communication required effort. Look for ways to introduce micro-bursts of activity into your day.


Get active with our free fitness app

Download the free HCF Get Fitter app now for fitness tips and workout programs. Available from iTunes and Google Play.

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