Fitness Advice From Our Ancient Ancestors

Evolution of programmer. From monkey to computer man.

Natural history museum dioramas often depict cavemen hunting woolly mammoths or saber-tooth tigers. Wow, our ancestors were pretty buff, we might think. And check out those Paleolithic skeletons! Too bad modern humans don’t have those powerful, strong bones.

But it turns out, say archaeologists, we could learn a lot from our forebears of long ago. Studies of their skeletons provide insights into how important exercise is for our species.

Less work means weaker bones and joints

The bones and joints of humans who lived 12,000 years ago are stronger than those of modern people. What happened?

Comparing modern and ancient human skeletons, Johns Hopkins University researchers found that this weakening occurred when these ancient peoples shifted from nomadic hunting to a farming culture.

While farming by hand seems like hard work, it doesn’t feature the constant walking that was part of the life of hunter-gatherers, who roamed from place to place to follow animal herds. Said study author Christopher Ruff, Ph.D., “By analyzing many arm and leg bone samples from throughout that time span, we found that European humans’ bones grew weaker gradually as they developed and adopted agriculture and settled down to a more sedentary lifestyle.” Ruff explained why: “The reason is almost surely mechanical. A less active lifestyle and weaker muscles produce less force across joints, stimulating less bone deposition.”

Researchers from University of Cambridge in the UK also examined the bones of human hunter-gatherers and found that these Paleolithic ancestors had bones that were as strong as those of today’s orangutans, versus the lighter and weaker bones of today’s humans. Study co-author Dr. Colin Shaw noted, “Sitting in a car or in front of a desk is not what we have evolved to do.”

Even though few of us spend our days roaming the wilderness in search of food, Dr. Shaw assures us that we can still benefit from regular strength training workouts. He said, “The fact is, we can be as strong as an orangutan—we’re just not, because we are not challenging our bones with enough loading, predisposing us to have weaker bones so that, as we age, situations arise where bones are breaking when, previously, they would not have.” He added, “Hip fractures, for example, don’t have to happen simply because you get older, if you build your bone strength up earlier in life so that as you age it never drops below that level where fractures can easily occur.”

Physical exercise for a healthy brain

Research also has shown that exercise builds connections in the brain that stave off dementia. Why is that? We know that exercise helps us avoid heart disease, diabetes and other conditions that harm our brains. But there’s something more at play.

A recent study from the University of Arizona suggests that our species developed big, complicated brains because we needed them to search for food.

“Foraging is an incredibly complex cognitive behavior,” explained anthropology professor David Raichlen. “You're moving on a landscape, you're using memory not only to know where to go but also to navigate your way back, you're paying attention to your surroundings. You're multitasking the entire time because you're making decisions while you're paying attention to the environment, while you are also monitoring your motor systems over complex terrain. Putting all that together creates a very complex multitasking effort."

Raichlen and his team say that at any age, modern humans can benefit from “cognitively challenging aerobic activity”—activities that make us think and move at the same time. Their research has focused on running. Other studies have found benefit in active video games, dancing, swimming and water aerobics and even working out while watching an intriguing TV program. Talk to your doctor about an exercise program that’s right for you. And as you enjoy the benefits, say a quick thanks to your ancient ancestors!

Source: Assisting Hands Home Care in association with IlluminAge. Copyright © IlluminAge, 2018.