Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding

Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding

by Daniel Lieberman

Narrated by Sean Runnette

Unabridged — 13 hours, 13 minutes

Daniel Lieberman
Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding

Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding

by Daniel Lieberman

Narrated by Sean Runnette

Unabridged — 13 hours, 13 minutes

Daniel Lieberman

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If exercise is healthy (so good for you!), why do many people dislike or avoid it? These engaging stories and explanations will revolutionize the way you think about exercising-not to mention sitting, sleeping, sprinting, weight lifting, playing, fighting, walking, jogging, and even dancing.

“Strikes a perfect balance of scholarship, wit, and enthusiasm.” -Bill Bryson, New York Times best-selling author of The Body

¿ If we are born to walk and run, why do most of us take it easy whenever possible?
¿ Does running ruin your knees?
¿ Should we do weights, cardio, or high-intensity training?
¿ Is sitting really the new smoking?
¿ Can you lose weight by walking?
¿ And how do we make sense of the conflicting, anxiety-inducing information about rest, physical activity, and exercise with which we are bombarded?

In this myth-busting book, Daniel Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University and a pioneering researcher on the evolution of human physical activity, tells the story of how we never evolved to exercise-to do voluntary physical activity for the sake of health. Using his own research and experiences throughout the world, Lieberman recounts without jargon how and why humans evolved to walk, run, dig, and do other necessary and rewarding physical activities while avoiding needless exertion.

Exercised is entertaining and enlightening but also constructive. As our increasingly sedentary lifestyles have contributed to skyrocketing rates of obesity and diseases such as diabetes, Lieberman audaciously argues that to become more active we need to do more than medicalize and commodify exercise.

Drawing on insights from evolutionary biology and anthropology, Lieberman suggests how we can make exercise more enjoyable, rather than shaming and blaming people for avoiding it. He also tackles the question of whether you can exercise too much, even as he explains why exercise can reduce our vulnerability to the diseases mostly likely to make us sick and kill us.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Jen A. Miller

Lieberman's inquisitiveness as both a researcher and a fitful fitness adherent allows him a distinct vantage on the subject, not just that of a curious layman (like Bill Bryson in The Body: A Guide for Skeptics) or alarm sounder (like Gary Taubes in The Case Against Sugar). Instead, Lieberman, drawing on his expertise and knowledge of the way evolutionary forces work, takes ideas that have been spun and spun again, often based on shaky information, and cracks them open…Lieberman mostly avoids getting too technical for nonscientists, and scatters the book with odd or fun details to keep the narrative moving along…

Publishers Weekly


In this smart volume, Harvard paleoanthropologist Lieberman (The Story of the Human Head) takes a scientifically astute look at exercise. Alongside actionable workout tips, he proffers persuasive reasons for everyone to exercise in some way (his preferred activity is running), notably that “physical activity is probably the single best way to lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease,” and that an active lifestyle can help “to prevent or tame... several kinds of cancers.” To help win over “habitual non-exercisers,” Lieberman has some refreshingly realistic suggestions for “mak the exercise less disagreeable,” such as rewarding oneself for completing workouts, or doing them in like-minded groups for moral support. Meanwhile, the recommendations for exercisers in general are helpfully straightforward and unfussy (“exercise several hours a week, mostly cardio but also some weights, and keep it up as you age”). To explore why humans can but don’t always build strength, Lieberman traces “two conflicting threads” in Homo sapiens’s evolution—as early humans became hunters, they “must have benefited from plenty of brawn,” but human society’s becoming “less reactively aggressive and more cooperative... reduced selection for being big and strong.” His illuminating and frequently humorous work will delight fitness mavens and make those pesky workout sessions more rewarding for everyone else. (Jan.)

From the Publisher

"Lieberman’s inquisitiveness as both a researcher and a fitful fitness adherent allows him a distinct vantage on the subject... Drawing on his expertise and knowledge of the way evolutionary forces work, [Lieberman] takes ideas that have been spun and spun again, often based on shaky information, and cracks them open... In addition to exorcising myths and detailing what kinds of exercise we’re good at, as well as why these particular activities matter for our physical well-being, Lieberman also gives us permission to be kind to ourselves if we’d rather not bother... Most important, Lieberman doesn’t judge those who find exercising difficult, even after knowing that they should be doing it, because exercise still isn’t all that fun."
—The New York Times

"Exercised makes important progress in the research topic for which Mr. Lieberman himself has become best known—the physiology of human running... my favorite passage of the book concerns dancing. Dance in many societies is a physical activity connected to ritual, a highly social activity with deep symbolic meaning to its participants. It reminds us that beauty, joy and rites of passage are central to human life, and that physical activity can be exuberant and ecstatic... I find Mr. Lieberman’s voice of moderation to be welcome in a world where barefoot running and paleo diets have become fads... Instead of looking to a mythological view of our evolutionary past, we should be looking around us at a broader array of real humans, all of them moving—happily—through their lives. Getting Exercised is a start."
—The Wall Street Journal

"Riveting... Highly appealing... Lieberman begins a process of myth-busting about exercise... An irresistible aspect of Exercised is Lieberman's firm stance that no shame or stigma be attached to those who find it challenging to sustain an exercise program... Another exceptionally informative part of the book discusses the damage-and-repair cycle brought on by exercise. Lieberman explains more clearly than I've ever read what exercise does to the body, and how the body then begins to repair itself afterwards... Lieberman makes a superb guide for anyone wishing to understand why it can be hard to commit to exercising, and why we should do it anyway."

"Lieberman’s clarity never wavers... His answers to physiological questions... inspire... The science beneath his arguments is revelatory, with thrilling implications for evolutionary biology. Written in a brisk prose, with ample graphs, Exercised is an excellent compendium on the broad medical advantages of exercise and a roadmap out of our pandemic to better health."
—The Boston Globe

"Entertaining and informative...The book is full of helpful tips... conveyed in a humorous and sympathetic style."
The Guardian

“Persuasive... Refreshing... [Lieberman's] illuminating and frequently humorous work will delight fitness mavens and make those pesky workout sessions more rewarding for everyone else."
Publishers Weekly

"Brilliant...This makes for captivating reading."
Booklist [starred review]

"A good choice for those seeking a macro view of the history of movement... In appealing, accessible language, the author tells interesting stories."

"Lieberman writes in a clear, approachable style, even when explaining complex research and concepts. "
Library Journal
“Endlessly fascinating and full of surprises. Daniel Lieberman strikes a perfect balance of scholarship, wit, and enthusiasm for his subject. This is easily one of my favorite books of the year.”
—Bill Bryson, New York Times best-selling author of A Walk in the Woods and The Body 

“Mythbusting, illuminating, brilliant – Daniel Lieberman will completely change the way you think about your body”
Alice Roberts, presenter of Our Incredible Human Journey

“Were we born to run, to walk, or to sit on a couch?  One of our leading human biologists takes us through millions of years of evolution and diverse cultures around the planet to give us surprising, yet simple, answers. Part user manual for the human body and part detective story exploring our evolution, Exercised will change the way you think about exercise, diet, and your own well-being.”
—Neil Shubin, Robert R. Bensley Distinguished Service Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy, University of Chicago, and best-selling author of Your Inner Fish

“Excellent. Well-written, amusing, and touching on all our lives. Seldom if ever have I so enjoyed reading a book on any subject, and this one is for all of us—those of us who like to exercise and those of us who don’t.”
—Richard Leakey, co-author of Origins Reconsidered: In Search of What Makes Us Human

“Fantastic. Such a surprising, erudite, and revelatory look at the natural history of physical activity and why exercise is both so necessary for us and so unnatural. It expands and alters our understanding of exercise, health, motivation, and why we feel the way that we do about treadmills. A must-read for anyone with a working body and mind.”
—Gretchen Reynolds, New York Times best-selling author of The First 20 Minutes

“In his earlier work, Lieberman explained how we were ‘born to run.’ In Exercised, he explains that we were also born to sit, which often leads to obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart attacks—chronic diseases unknown to early humans. Fortunately, Exercised also explains how physical activity can set us free from these ills. It’s both a fascinating read and one that could nudge you toward a healthier (and longer) life.”
—Amby Burfoot, editor-at-large, Runner’s World, and winner of the 1968 Boston Marathon

Library Journal


Lieberman (paleoanthropologist, Harvard Univ.; The story of the Human Body) explores the paradox of exercise, "a source of pleasure and health but a cause of discomfort [and] guilt." The benefits of exercise are well-known, but the vast amount of opinions, research, and trends in the field show that humans are still confused about how to do it safely, enjoyably, and beneficially. He suggests that the contemporary Western approach to exercise is riddled with misunderstandings because evolutionary and anthropological perspectives on physical activity are usually overlooked. He evaluates common myths about exercise and health, including the idea of a correct amount of sleep, the dangers of sitting too much, and the role of inactivity. He concludes that while our bodies evolved to exercise, our minds did not; to overcome this barrier, exercise needs to be seen as necessary or enjoyable. No exercise instructions or plans are provided in this natural history of exercise, but Lieberman's explanations and a disease reference may help convince some non-exercisers to start moving. VERDICT Lieberman writes in a clear, approachable style, even when explaining complex research and concepts. Recommended for collections where either exercise science or human evolution are popular subjects.—Anitra Gates, Erie Cty. P.L., PA

Kirkus Reviews

An accomplished intellectual explains our need to be regularly physical.

While there are plenty of generalities that apply to exercise—it’s good for us, it may help prevent disease, it’s best done regularly—most of the important elements are personal and variable. Near the beginning of his latest, Harvard paleoanthropologist Lieberman states, “this is not a self-help book.” Indeed, the narrative is more of a thoughtfully organized natural history than a straightforward how-to guide. In appealing, accessible language, the author tells interesting stories and only seldom slips into the weeds—e.g., overly long discussions of the daily lives of hunter-gatherers. He also addresses relevant topics that regularly generate misinformation: “Is sitting the new smoking? “Is it bad to slouch? Do you need eight hours of sleep?” As the author notes, many Americans don’t get enough exercise, so some may wonder how many will desire a pure history of something they don’t do and don’t like. Nonetheless, Lieberman adds useful context regarding the why of exercise—we didn’t evolve to spend time on treadmills, yet exercise seems essential in a post-industrial age—and readers will want to know what to do with this compelling information. The author suggests some answers, such as in a section on how exercise might be applied to combat certain common ailments. An example: “This one is easy: cardio is better than weights for obesity.” It wouldn’t be hard to find personal trainers who quibble with that statement. After all, is the goal sustained weight loss or the most weight loss in a specific period of time? How old/healthy/overfed/active is the person? While readers may not be convinced by such statements as “make exercise necessary and fun,” the author successfully makes use of “evolutionary and anthropological perspectives to explore and rethink dozens of myths about physical inactivity, activity, and exercise.”

A good choice for those seeking a macro view of the history of movement. For what to do about it, hire a trainer.

Product Details

BN ID: 2940177394541
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Publication date: 01/05/2021
Edition description: Unabridged

Read an Excerpt

From Chapter One: Are We Born to Rest or Run?
Are “Normal” Humans Couch Potatoes?

Imagine you have been asked to conduct a scientific study on how much, when, and why “normal” people exercise. Because we tend to think of ourselves and our societies as normal, you’d probably collect data on the exercise habits of people like you and me. This approach is the norm in many fields of inquiry. For example, because most psychologists live and work in the United States and Europe, about 96 percent of the subjects in psychological studies are also from the United States and Europe.8 Such a narrow perspective is appropriate if we are interested only in contemporary Westerners, but people in Western industrialized countries aren’t necessarily representative of the other 88 percent of the world’s population. Moreover, today’s world is profoundly different from that of the past, calling into question who among us is “normal” by historical or evolutionary standards. Imagine trying to explain cell phones and Facebook to your great-great- great- grandparents. If we really want to know what ordinary humans do and think about exercise, we need to sample everyday people from a variety of cultures instead of focusing solely on contemporary Americans and Europeans who are, comparatively speaking, WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic).9
To go a step further, until a few hundred generations ago, all human beings were hunter-gatherers, and until about eighty thousand years ago everyone’s ancestors lived in Africa. So if we genuinely want to know about the exercise habits of evolutionarily “normal” humans, it behooves us to learn about hunter-gatherers, especially those who live in arid, tropical Africa.
Studying hunter-gatherers, however, is easier said than done because their way of life has almost entirely vanished. Only a handful of hunter-gatherer tribes persist in some of the most remote corners of the globe. Further, none are isolated from civilization and none subsist solely on the wild foods they hunt and gather. All of these tribes trade with neighboring farmers, they smoke tobacco, and their way of life is changing so rapidly that in a few decades they will cease to be hunter-gatherers. 10 Anthropologists and other scientists are therefore scrambling to learn as much as possible from these few tribes before their way of life irrevocably disappears.
Of all of them, the most intensely studied is the Hadza, who live in a dry, hot woodland region of Tanzania in Africa, the continent where humans evolved. In fact, doing research on the Hadza has become something of a cottage industry for anthropologists. In the last decade, researchers have studied almost everything you can imagine about the Hadza. You can read books and articles about how the Hadza eat, hunt, sleep, digest, collect honey, make friends, squat, walk, run, evaluate each other’s attractiveness, and more.11 You can even read about their poop.12 In turn, the Hadza have become so used to visiting scientists that hosting the researchers who observe them has become a way to supplement their income. Sadly, visiting scientists who want to emphasize how much they are studying bona fide hunter-gatherers sometimes turn a blind eye to the degree to which the Hadza’s way of life is changing as a result of contact with the outside world. These papers rarely mention how many Hadza children now go to government schools, and how the Hadza’s territory is almost entirely shared with neighboring tribes of farmers and pastoralists, with whom they trade and whose cows tramp all over the region. As I write this, the Hadza don’t yet have cell phones, but they are not isolated as they once were.
Despite these limitations, there is still much to learn from the Hadza, and I am fortunate to have visited them on a couple of occasions. But to get to the Hadza is not easy. They live in a ring of inhospitable hills surrounding a seasonal, salty lake in northwestern Tanzania—a hot, arid, sunbaked region that is almost impossible to farm.13 The area has some of the worst roads on the planet. Of the roughly twelve hundred Hadza, only about four hundred still predominantly hunt and gather, and to find these few, more traditional Hadza, you need sturdy jeeps, an experienced guide, and a lot of skill to travel over treacherous terrain. After a rainstorm, driving twenty miles can take most of the day.
Many things surprised me when I first walked into a Hadza camp mid-morning on a torrid, sunny day in 2013, but I remember being especially struck by how everyone was apparently doing nothing. Hadza camps consist of a few temporary grass huts that blend in with the surrounding bushes. I didn’t realize I had walked into a camp until I found myself amid about fifteen Hadza men, women, and children who were sitting on the ground as shown in figure 2. The women and children were relaxing on one side, and the men on another. One fellow was straightening some arrows, and a few children were toddling about, but no one was engaged in any hard work. To be sure, the Hadza weren’t lounging on sofas, watching TV, munching potato chips, and sipping soda, but they were doing what so many health experts warn us to avoid: sitting. 
My observations since that day along with published studies of their activity levels confirm my initial impression: when Hadza men and women are in camp, they are almost always doing light chores while sitting on the ground, gossiping, looking after children, and otherwise just hanging around. Of course, Hadza men and women head out almost every day to the bush to hunt or gather food. The women typically leave camp in the morning and walk several miles to somewhere they can dig for tubers. Digging is a relaxing and social task that usually involves sitting in a group under the bushes in the shade and using sticks to excavate edible tubers and roots. As Hadza women dig, they eat some of what they extract while chatting and minding their infants and toddlers. On the way there and back, women often stop to collect berries, nuts, or other foods. On the few occasions when I have accompanied Hadza men on hunts, we walked between seven and ten miles. When they are tracking animals, the pace is varied but never so fast that I wasn’t able to keep up, and often the hunters stop to rest and look around. Whenever they encounter a honeybee hive, they stop, make a fire, smoke out the bees, and gorge themselves on fresh honey.
Among the many studies of the Hadza, one asked forty-six Hadza adults to wear lightweight heart rate monitors for several days.14 According to these sensors, the average adult Hadza spends a grand total of three hours and forty minutes a day doing light activities and two hours and fourteen minutes a day doing moderate or vigorous activities. Although these few hours of hustling and bustling per day make them about twelve times more active than the average American or European, by no stretch of the imagination could one characterize their workloads as backbreaking. On average, the women walk five miles a day and dig for several hours, whereas the men walk between seven and ten miles a day.15 And when they aren’t being very active, they typically rest or do light work.
The Hadza, moreover, are typical of other hunter-gatherer groups whose physical activity levels have been studied. The anthropologist Richard B. Lee astonished the world in 1979 by documenting that San hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari spend only two to three hours a day foraging for food.16 Lee might have underestimated how much work the San do, but more recent studies of other foraging populations report similarly modest physical activity levels as the Hadza.17 One especially well-studied group is the Tsimane, who fish, hunt, and grow a few crops in the Amazon rain forest. Overall, Tsimane adults are physically active for four to seven hours per day, with men engaging in vigorous tasks like hunting for only about seventy-two minutes a day and women engaging in almost no vigorous activity at all but instead doing mostly light to moderate tasks such as child care and food processing.18
All in all, assuming that what hunter-gatherers do is evolutionarily “normal,” then comprehensive studies of contemporary foraging populations from Africa, Asia, and the Americas indicate that a typical human workday used to be about seven hours, with much of that time spent on light activities and at most an hour of vigorous activity.19 To be sure, there is variation from group to group and from season to season, and there is no such thing as a vacation or retirement, but most hunter-gatherers engage in modest levels of physical effort, much of it accomplished while sitting. How different, then, are such “normal” humans from postindustrial people like me (and perhaps you), not to mention farmers like the Tarahumara, factory workers, and others whose lives have been transformed by civilization?

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