A study published in the journal PNAS presents a novel hypothesis explaining why humans live as long as we do, and the role exercise plays in our health and lifespan.
In this article, we’ll analyze their research to understand and evaluate this hypothesis and then explore what it reveals about the healthiest way to live as we age.
Evolution And Exercise
Researchers from Harvard University have published a study that uses evolutionary biology to interpret and explain the health benefits of regular physical activity in older adults.1
Humans uniquely possess the trait of living well beyond reproductive age. That means evolutionary forces favored humans who could live those extra decades. We also know that early humans were, by necessity, highly active their entire lives.
The researchers propose that the health benefits of exercise evolved alongside humans' extended lifespans.
If we evolved to stay physically active into old age, this would explain why habitual inactivity leads to numerous health problems. This also means that humans evolved the ability to maximize their lifespans by remaining highly active into old age. That's a lesson we can apply to our modern lives.
Researchers at Harvard used evolutionary biology to explain the connection between humans' long lifespans and the health benefits of physical activity.
An Active Old Age Is Evolutionarily Appropriate
Studies of early humans show that hunter-gatherers maintained extraordinary levels of activity well into their old age. Their ability to contribute to the survival and continuation of their social groups– even past reproductive age– could explain evolutionary selection for the ability to remain highly active.1
This contrasts with closely related species, like apes, who are far less active, and who do not survive long past reproductive age. This suggests that the two traits, longer lifespans and higher levels of physical activity, evolved together in humans.
Research on the health benefits of physical activity demonstrates how PA contributes to extended lifespan.
Studies have associated increased exercise with reductions in the risk of numerous diseases including hypertension, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and many cancers. Physical activity also slows senescence, a process of deterioration that increases vulnerability to disease.1
Early humans stayed active their entire lives and lived well past reproductive age. The evolutionary benefits of remaining active late in life were strong enough that human biology evolved to use exercise to extend lifespan.
We’re Meant To Move
The Harvard researchers have identified two biological pathways activated by physical activity. The first pathway steers energy away from harmful uses, like storing excess fat. The second pathway allocates energy to health-sustaining maintenance and repair processes.1
These processes enabled early humans to continue supporting their family groups through hunting and gathering, even into old age.
In modern times, our ability to procure food and shelter for ourselves and our families doesn't necessarily demand lifelong physical activity. However, we still have the same bodies as our early human ancestors.
The effect of exercise is ingrained in our biology through evolution. Its impact is most prominent as we age. Instead of slowing down with old age, we should follow the example of our oldest ancestors and remain highly active.
The study's authors concluded that because we evolved to be physically active throughout our lives, our bodies need physical activity to age well.
That conclusion aligns with everything we know about bone biology. It is only through the continued use of our bones that they remain strong, per Wolff's Law. Exercise activates the bone remodeling process, which maintains the strength and health of our bones.
Researchers found physical activity steers energy away from harmful uses in the body and toward health-sustaining uses, allowing physically active older humans to live longer. Because we evolved to be physically active throughout our lives, our bodies need PA to age well.
What This Means To You
Unlock your evolutionary potential to live a long and healthy life through robust physical activity. If anything, you should be increasing your activity levels as you age.
The Save Institute created SaveTrainer to make it easy and enjoyable to get the physical activity you need to build strong bones and stay healthy. SaveTrainer is a revolutionary online platform offering workouts of every variety at every ability level led by trained professionals.
Don’t let the possibility of a long and healthy life pass you by– keep learning and keep moving.