Born to run: evolved for movement, not inertia

I love a bit of stand-up comedy. Recently I watched an old episode of Live at the Apollo which showcased the Irish comedienne, Aisling (“Ashleen”) Bea. Here she is telling the audience why she can’t do any exercise….

Aisling Bea

I used to have that very same condition. We call it “idleitis”! Now and again it flares up. It’s a terrible thing really…. ;-)

But then about 18 months ago I moved jobs to work at Loughborough University. For those of you unfamiliar with the academic realm, Loughborough is THE place to go for sport in the UK. In fact, at the time of writing, they are extremely proud to be named number one in the world for sport-related subjects.

I, however, am NOT naturally gifted in sports. In fact, when I was 15 I used to play hockey (field hockey, not ice hockey – goodness, no! I’m not that brave!). I played for the school team and I played for a local team.

I LOVED it.

But I sucked at it.

No really, I truly was one of the worst players on the team! In fact, I barely made it off the reserves list!

Anyway, my point (I’m getting there, I promise!) is that I’m not naturally gifted at sports so I’ve never really prioritized it. And then when I joined Loughborough, suddenly I’m surround by people running around in spandex. No joke, there is literally ALWAYS someone to be seen running and nearly everyone wears sports clothing.

I felt like a fish out of water, for sure

But then of course I began a new area of research. You see, I used to work on a virus-associated cancer, but when I moved to Loughborough, I wanted to do something in the realm of sport as exercise for cancer prevention, particularly prevention of secondary metastases. So, I began diligently reading the literature and very quickly I was thrust into an inspiring world of how amazing the human body is. I’ll write in more detail in a future post about the physiological and molecular effects of physical activity and exercise in cancer but for this post I’m not going to focus on that.

It was during this initial deep-dive into the literature that I discovered that the minimum recommended guidelines for cancer patients is actually no different from the general public: 5 x 30 minutes of moderate to high intensity exercise per week. 

I remember at the time thinking, “I’m lucky if I do two bouts of exercise each week and I don’t have any excuses not to do more! What am I playing at?!”

And so, I embarked on my own personal mission to get my butt in gear and MOVE more.

It was also around this time I came across a paper that mentioned the evolutionary adaptation to physical activity that we, as human beings, have developed.

Think about it: we were cavemen once upon a time. And if we could run (and run fast!) on minimal fuel, then we had a survival advantage. So, we naturally selected for genetic changes that made that possible. And slowly but surely, over millions of years, this became our ‘thing’, our ‘super-power’.

If you could move, if you were athletic, you survived.

If not, gosh you’re a tasty bear treat!

Fast-forward a few thousand years (or more) and now we don’t HAVE to move so much. Most of us don’t have to hunt for our own food – we buy it from a supermarket. Most of us don’t have to run away from bears (although maybe some do…).

A lot of us have desk jobs that mean we spend hours upon hours on our butts, then we get into our cars, drive home (on our butts) and sit on our sofas (on our butts) watching telly.

We’re now in this strange place where we’ve evolved to move more, but overlaid on top of that, we’ve changed really quite quickly to be lazy, and our bodies haven’t had time to catch up with that change (evolutionarily speaking). We haven’t adapted (yet) to being sedentary. And I don’t think we ever will, because being sedentary comes with reduced life expectancy and increased disease risk. So, any genetic changes that come from that will naturally NOT be selected for.

Some of us get out into the world and breath fresh air into our lungs, or drop by the gym on the way to or from work. Some of us enjoy playing sports or dancing or drumming and so we naturally fit in more physical activity, sometimes without even realising it. 

But many of us don’t. Many of us make excuses as to why we can’t. Many of us just don’t like getting sweaty!

I had the real privilege of visiting the Get Busy Living! centre in north Leicestershire last week, which was set up by the Matt Hampson Foundation. For those of you who haven’t heard of Matt Hampson (I must admit, I hadn’t at first…like I said, I’m not big on sports), he was a rising star in the England under 21s rugby team who had a terrible accident in 2005 which severed his spinal cord and left him paralysed from the neck down.

On the wall in one of their meeting rooms there’s a slogan that reads:

“Get busy living, or get busy dying”

Despite his crippling injuries, Matt has devoted his life to LIVING. A man who would long to run around on the rugby pitch once again, but is physically unable to, has devoted his life to helping others affected by spinal cord injuries to regain their life.

So, we have evolved to move more, but our lifestyles have changed so dramatically that it’s no longer part of our daily activities unless we choose to move more. Many of us do choose to still keep active. Many of us make excuses not to. A few of us are unfortunately unable to.

But ALL of us should be doing what we CAN.

Get busy living, or get busy dying. It’s that simple.

And now I'm off out for a run....

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