Convenience is great, but at what cost to our health and length of life?”>
Our bodies werent meant for this world weve built. Thats why your back hurts. The things you think are normal are not. The world around you is an alien landscape, a science fiction movie set.
This is not the matrix. This is our everyday, modern life. But if youll take a step back with me, you might find that there is hardly anything ordinary about the world weve built. The very built-ness of our world is precisely what makes it so foreign to our bodies. In some ways the banal conveniences we seek out and enjoy are actually killing us by a thousand tiny cuts over decades and decades.
Of course, a thousand cuts over the course of a lifetime is a much better way to go than say, one big wound from a saber-toothed tiger taking a bite out of your head. Or finding yourself exposed with no shelter on a freezing tundra. We have eliminated some of the worst things that humans have experienced for most of our history on this planet. Thats quite the accomplishment. But weve traded these dangers for the perils of inactivity: heart disease, type II diabetes, some forms of cancer, back pain, joint pain, and possibly a smorgasbord of mental health issues.
Consider the kitchen counter. As you rinse your dishes, blend your smoothie, and grate your cheese, everything is within arms reach. At most youll take a few steps to the fridge, bending or squatting for a few seconds to put the bologna back in the crisper. (You fool! Bologna doesnt go in the crisper!)
Contrast that with activities of daily life in say, rural Uganda. In Pajule, a small town where I spent a couple summers, it was typical for (mostly) women to get up before dawn to work in their fields planting, weeding, or harvesting. Theyd carry water for the days chores and gather wood for the cook fire. The tasks of daily living were primarily performed on the groundlaundry, dishwashing, cooking dinner, or boiling water for tea. Children, adults, and the elderly moved throughout the day, squatting, carrying, walking, reaching, and bending at the hips.
These folks face plenty of hardships, but one thing they do not lack is movement. Those of us lucky enough to live in richer countries have managed to build and engineer movement out of our environment. That may make us comfortable in the short term, but this has serious consequences for our bodies.
I asked Daniel Lieberman, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University and author of the book The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health and Disease, about what our modern built environment is doing to us.
We have to evaluate those costs and benefits, Lieberman said. So much of the world that we take for grantedthe world around usand think is normal, it isnt normal. That doesnt mean its bad, but its not normal from an evolutionary perspective.
We all love comfort, he continued. If we were to distribute comfy chairs around the world, people around the world would sit in them. And comfort has its benefits for sure, but if your goal is long-term health, theres plenty of evidence that not all the things that are comfortable are good for us. That doesnt mean that everything comfortable is bad for us, of course.
Lieberman pointed out that we didnt necessarily evolve to be healthywe evolved to have as many offspring as possible. From an evolutionary perspective, we only needed to live long enough to have some babies, and to make sure that those babies would survive long enough to have more babies. This means that many of the traits that made it into our genes arent aimed at our long-term self-interest, in terms of health.
We didnt evolve to make the kinds of choices that we have today, Lieberman told me. And were asking people to make choices that they cant makemost of us. If you put a brownie and an apple in front of me, of course Im going to eat the brownie. Were asking people to do things that are really, really challenging, and then shaming them and blaming them when they make the wrong choice.
But our evolutionary drive for acquiring cheap energy also makes us loath to unnecessarily spend it. In Liebermans book he points out that even todays hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers will relax, when possible: When hardworking people with limited food have the chance, the sensibly sit or lie, which costs much less energy than standing, Lieberman writes.
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