We share more than 97 percent of our DNA with apes but according to professor of evolutionary anthropology now at Duke University, Herman Pontzer, who has been studying how evolution has shaped human physiology and health, we shouldn’t ape the behavior of apes.
Better than marathon runners, chimpanzees have less than 10 percent body fat and although they have high blood cholesterol levels they don’t get human like heart disease or hypertension or type 2 diabetes, even when living in zoos. Professor Pontzer initially thought they must get a big workout climbing in trees but simple observation of their lifestyle reveals that they are lazy.
A day in the life of a chimp in the wild goes like this. “Wake up early, crack of dawn, then off to breakfast (fruit). Eat until you are stuffed, and next find a nice place for a nap, maybe some light grooming. After an hour or so (no rush!), go find a sunny tree with figs and gorge yourself. Maybe go meet some friends, a bit more grooming, another nap. Around five o’clock have an early dinner (more fruit, maybe some leaves), then it is time to find a nice sleeping tree, build a nest and call it a [day].” (1) The rest of the family, orangutans, gorillas and bonobos, also lead lazy lives.
When humans left that part of the primate family and went from living in trees to walking on the ground efficiently, they began about 2 million years of hunting and gathering that is still practiced by humans like the Hadza people on the African savanna to this day. This required a lot of walking and even running. Our bodies evolved to require daily exercise. Research from Pontzer’s lab further shows that physical activity has little effect on daily energy expenditure because we are more efficient. The Hadza hunter-gathers burn the same number of calories per day as sedentary Westerners. (2) Exercise has become essential rather than optional “and weight loss is probably the one health benefit it largely fails to deliver.”
According to Dr. Pontzer we are killing ourselves if we spend our days at a desk, living like a chimp, and not getting at least 10,000 steps in. Instead we should run around in circles, hunting and gathering, like little kids do. They know best.
Or we can skip the 10,000 steps and figure out how the chimps do without that and change our metabolism with drugs or maybe by genetic engineering.
1. Pontzer H. Evolved to exercise. Scientific American January 2019; 320(1):23-9.
2. DiTraglia J. Portsmouth Daily Times. Clues from the Hadza people of Tanzania. February 1, 2017.