It’s time to get off the couch and get some exercise, especially if you are older.
That’s because humans evolved to live longer and healthier lives because of physical activity, even later in life, according to a recent study published in the American scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“It’s a widespread idea in Western societies that as we get older, it’s normal to slow down, do less, and retire,” Harvard evolutionary biologist Daniel E. Lieberman, the paper’s lead author, told The Harvard Gazette.
“Our message is the reverse: As we get older, it becomes even more important to stay physically active.”
The study lays out the evolutionary and biomedical evidence of human longevity that come from exercise.
The researchers suggest physical activity essentially helps the body focus on mechanisms that extend its operation and steers it away from bodily processes that maintain weakened or damaged functions.
This results in reductions in cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, and even some cancers, the study said.
The study compared humans to their ape cousins, who typically live 35 to 40 years in the wild and lead sedentary lifestyles.
“We evolved basically from couch potatoes,” said Lieberman. He went to Tanzania to observe wild chimpanzees and was surprised by how much time they spend “sitting on their butts, digesting.”
Even though being physically active puts stresses on bones, muscles and tissue, which can sometimes lead to injuries, the body works to repair the damage by building it back stronger.
This in turn causes the release of antioxidants and anti-inflammatories, and enhances blood flow. For people that are less active, those responses occur less frequently.
The repair processes of the body can lower the risk of diabetes, obesity, cancer, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s, and depression, the study said.
“The key take-home point is that because we evolved to be active throughout our lives, our bodies need physical activity to age well. In the past, daily physical activity was necessary in order to survive, but today we have to choose to exercise, that is to do voluntary physical activity for the sake of health and fitness,” Lieberman said.
And it doesn’t take much effort to realize the benefits of being active.
“The key is to do something, and to try to make it enjoyable so you’ll keep doing it,” Lieberman said. “… Even small amounts of physical activity – just 10 or 20 minutes a day – substantially lower your risk of mortality.”