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Humans Evolved to Be Physically Active During Aging, Researchers Suggest

Older people hiking

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Key Takeaways

  • Despite the cultural emphasis on taking it easy as you age, that actually goes against your evolutionary drive, researchers suggest.
  • Part of the evidence for later-life activity is the degree of lowered risk for chronic illnesses.
  • Even small amounts of activity every day can be beneficial, according to researchers and new WHO recommendations.

Ample research has connected regular physical activity to healthy aging, and particularly to lower chronic disease risk. Now, a new paper in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests this is not a new phenomenon—exercise is actually part of our evolutionary heritage.

Biomechanical researchers and evolutionary biologists from Harvard University call this the "active grandparent hypothesis." It states that as we age, physical activity changes processes in the body extend life and maintain health.

The widespread idea, especially in Western societies, that later decades should be rife with leisure actually goes against evolutionary forces that are nudging us to ramp up exercise, according to the paper's lead author, Daniel Lieberman, PhD, a paleoanthropologist at Harvard.

"Our message here is the reverse of what's usually recommended, which is to slow down and do less," he says. "As we get older, it becomes even more important to stay physically active."

Why Activity Matters

In reaching their conclusions, Dr. Lieberman and his colleagues used apes as a starting point for their hypothesis, in part because apes are closely related to humans, but also because they live only about 35 to 40 years in the wild. Females also rarely survive past menopause, suggesting that they did not evolve to live decades after active reproduction years.

Dr. Lieberman says apes are also considerably less active than most humans. They also are far more sedentary than hunter-gatherers, who average at least 2 hours of daily physical activity that's considered moderate to vigorous.

Daniel Lieberman, PhD

We evolved to be active, and that means we need physical activity to age well, not just to survive.

— Daniel Lieberman, PhD

"The level of movement seen with hunter-gatherers may be one of the keys to understanding why they live so much longer, and why they always have," Dr. Lieberman notes.

For example, fossil evidence suggests that it was common for these ancestors to live into their 70s, despite the previous belief that they tended to have short lifespans. Looking at the biomechanical effects of later-life activity, the researchers found that exercise had notable benefits for healthy aging, including:

  • Improved repair and maintenance of muscles and cartilage
  • Enhanced blood flow
  • Release of antioxidants and anti-inflammatories
  • Repair of cellular and DNA processes
  • Reduced fat storage

All of these play a role in healthy aging, Dr. Lieberman suggests, and have been shown in previous research to lower the risk of major health issues like Alzheimer's, cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.

"We evolved to be active, and that means we need physical activity to age well, not just to survive," he says. "This is an important point given how physical activity levels have been decreasing worldwide."

Movement Is Medicine

Although it might seem that the researchers are pushing for humans to reach hunter-gatherer activity levels of 135 minutes daily, Lieberman says the good news is that while that's an impressive goal, even small amounts are meaningful.

He notes that just 10 to 20 minutes every day can substantially improve health. Also important for better aging is doing a variety of physical activities for better mobility.

Emmanuel Stamatakis, PhD

Simply put, all movement counts, and people need to understand the importance of being active for better health.

— Emmanuel Stamatakis, PhD

That concept is backed up by a breadth of research and recommendations as well. For instance, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations on physical activity, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, suggests that people over age 65 should not only get 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity weekly but also add functional balance and strength training to the mix.

Previous guidelines had suggested at least 10 minutes for each exercise session, but those have been replaced by the assertion that any amount of exercise is helpful.

"Simply put, all movement counts, and people need to understand the importance of being active for better health," says Emmanuel Stamatakis, PhD, professor of physical activity, lifestyle, and population health at the University of Sydney, and the former editor-in-chief of BMJ Open Sports and Exercise Medicine. "That could be climbing the stairs or even cleaning your house."

What This Means For You

Despite the widespread belief that getting older means taking it easy, humans evolved to be active. This concept applies even in later years especially because exercise drives healthy aging, according to a new study. While it can seem overwhelming to add exercise especially if you have been sedentary, researchers indicate that any amount of movement is helpful. Just be sure to talk to a healthcare provider before starting a new exercise regimen. They can help you determine what is right for you.

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4 Sources
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  1. Lieberman DE, Kistner TM, Richard D, Lee IM, Baggish AL. The active grandparent hypothesis: Physical activity and the evolution of extended human healthspans and lifespans. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2021;118(50):e2107621118. doi:10.1073/pnas.2107621118

  2. InsideHook. Study: Humans who behave like chimpanzees have a worse life expectancy.

  3. STAT. The 'active grandparent hypothesis': New research reveals how we've evolved to move more and live longer.

  4. Bull FC, Al-Ansari SS, Biddle S, et al. World Health Organization 2020 guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behaviourBr J Sports Med. 2020;54(24):1451-1462. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2020-102955