Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Harvard professor hosts talk about exercise as medicine

By Tara Dowd

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(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/ Daily Collegian)

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/ Daily Collegian)

Daniel Lieberman of the biological sciences department at Harvard University spoke at the Commonwealth Honors College Thursday Oct. 6, where he discussed the role of physical activity and its health implications from an evolutionary perspective.

His lecture, titled “Is Exercise Medicine? An Evolutionary Medical Perspective,” provided insight into how to prevent illness and promote health through exercise. It came as part of the Tay Gavin Erickson lecture series at the University of Massachusetts.

“From an evolutionary perspective, the only way we are going to solve this problem is to make exercise both more necessary and more fun,” Lieberman said.

Lieberman is a paleoanthropologist at Harvard where he serves as the Edwin M. Lerner II professor of biological sciences and chair of the department of human evolutionary biology. He specializes in the evolution of the human skull and in human locomotion, particularly barefoot and endurance running.

Lieberman explained that evolutionary biology is essential to understanding the function of physical activity throughout human history, as well as its role today.

“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” Lieberman said.

Lieberman spoke about what is often referred to as the exercise paradox – the idea that we evolved to be athletes and yet very few people are sufficiently active today.

According to him, only about 25 percent of undergraduate college students get enough physical activity.

Over the past 150 years, Lieberman said there has been a major increase in chronic noninfectious diseases with a strong correlation to rising levels of inactivity, thus making this a major global health issue.

Lieberman also said that to fight this health issue we need to exercise more and have healthier diets.

To understand this phenomena, Lieberman spoke about our early ancestors who adopted a hunter-gatherer way of life, which necessitated frequent movement and a high level of physical activity.

He said that we evolved to hunt through endurance running and that as a result of this lifestyle, the human species adapted to frequent exercise. “The obvious conclusion is that we evolved to be athletes,” Lieberman said.

A number of our physical features, including short toes, arched feet and Achilles tendons  provide abundant evidence that humans have been endurance athletes for over two million years, according to Lieberman.

As further indication of our innate athleticism, Lieberman described the evolutionary necessity for humans to expend as little energy as possible in physically demanding environments.

Tara Dowd Can be reached at [email protected]

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