Harvard professor to discuss book about exercise in Chaucer’s virtual talk
Why do humans never truly feel like exercising just for the sake of exercising?
This is the question Daniel Lieberman, Harvard professor and chair of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, tried to answer in his book “Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding” (Pantheon, $29.95).
The author will talk about his book in a virtual discussion hosted by Chaucer’s Books March 11 with Chaucer’s Books Events Coordinator Michael Takeuchi.
In “Exercised,” Dr. Lieberman refers to the way Americans view exercise as a “bizarre western modern notion.”
“We have a very strange attitude toward exercise,” he told the News-Press. “We tell people that they’re lazy when they don’t do it … But we have all kinds of instincts not to do it.”
Dr. Lieberman studies the evolution of physical activity for a living, from how humans evolved to run long distances to the evolution of walking.
He said what triggered this idea that humans aren’t evolved to do voluntary physical activity for the sake of health came from a trip where he spoke to American Indian runners who didn’t train just for the sake of training.
The Indians’ interpreter told Dr. Lieberman, “Why would anybody run if they didn’t have to?”
As he thought about it more, he came to the conclusion that exercise should be fun.
“Do you know anybody who actually enjoys being on a treadmill?” he said. “If you don’t enjoy it, you won’t do it unless you’re incredibly will-powered or incredibly scared of dying.”
It’s for this reason Dr. Lieberman believes exercise has been “commercialized, industrialized, commodified and medicalized,” and he said it’s not working, citing skyrocketing rates of obesity and diabetes. He added that it’s not enough for most people to even throw on a podcast or a TV show to tolerate the treadmill — humans still would rather not do that.
In his book, he writes that if people find a way to make exercise fun and enjoyable to them by doing things such as going on a walk with another person or playing a game with someone or dancing with someone, they’re much more likely to stay in shape and healthy. When asked what kind of exercise he thinks people should do and how often, he said that specific question is why he wrote the book.
“That’s the kind of prescription approach to exercise — there is no one prescription. It depends on who you are, old or young … There’s no optimal dose. It’s a fiction that we’ve created in our perverted medicalized perspective on exercise,” Dr. Lieberman said. “We’ve got to stop this kind of way of thinking about it.”
The professor himself said he’s a runner, but he doesn’t consider himself a great athlete. However, his extensive research into running influenced his actual running routine.
This topic is especially important, he added, in the era of COVID-19. He said that people who are well off with basement gyms have been able to keep up with their fitness, but for those without that benefit, COVID-19 has further exacerbated lack of exercise in society.
He said everyone already knows exercise is important for decreasing vulnerability to respiratory illness, and especially amid the pandemic, it’s important for mental health too.
“People are already dealing with incredible depression and stress, which is strongly alleviated by physical activity,” he said. “If it’s not the time to talk about that, I don’t know when is.”