Daniel Lieberman
Human evolution, lifelong physical activity and health

Talk Abstract

Why does lifelong physical activity —particularly during middle and older age— promote health? More specifically, what is the evolutionary explanation for why humans are less likely to remain healthy as they age in the absence of regular physical activity including its modern manifestation, exercise (defined as discretionary physical activity undertaken for the sake of health and fitness)? Here I argue that humans were selected to be more physically active than other apes throughout our unusually long lifespans, including the several decades after we cease reproducing. I will also show how and why metabolic and physiological stresses induced by physical activity promoted selection to allocate energy away from harmful overinvestments in fat storage and reproductive tissues and towards repair and maintenance processes that slow senescence and reduce vulnerability to many forms of chronic diseases. As a result, extended human health spans, hence lifespans, are both a cause and consequence of habitual physical activity, helping explain why lack of lifelong physical activity can increase disease risk and reduce longevity. I will conclude by considering how an evolutionary anthropological perspective on physical activity can help encourage more people to exercise without being exercised about it.