Growing up, I never really liked sports. I don’t know if it was because I was the third son and was kind of chubby and really liked Nintendo, or my brothers were both football players and I—like most younger siblings—wanted to do everything in my power to distinguish myself from them.
Either way, I played a few sports that I didn’t like as a kid because my family had a rule that every son had to do something athletic. I went through a whole gambit of discontent with various sports: I thought baseball was boring and couldn’t stand the smell of fresh cut grass in the morning, in basketball I got angry at the other players for throwing the ball to me because I didn’t like the responsibility and in tennis I couldn’t improve because me and the other awkward kid on the team would always stop paying attention to practice and wander off to discuss our Yu-Gi-Oh card decks.
I eventually settled on swimming for two reasons: my parents wouldn’t let me quit, and I was kind of good at it. I went to practices six times a week and hated every single moment of it. Really. Waking up at 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday and moving back and forth along the pool’s length are probably the closest I’ve come to legitimate hell in the earthly realm. Either that or the 200 butterfly.
Despite how much I’ve always hated exercise, though, it’s a pretty widely acknowledged fact that doing things other than sitting down, eating or moving the thumb sticks on a controller is really, really good for you.
As a matter of fact, sports have been linked to a number of health benefits: they increase our abilities to work with others, respect people in leadership roles and give us access to a nice heaping dose of feel-good dopamine. The verdict is still out on whether or not they help you live longer, but it’s hard to argue against the mounting evidence of various later-in-life difficulties like arthritis and dementia that can be reduced with daily exercise.
Moreover, some anthropologists and biologists have noted that physical activity—particularly long distance running—was so inextricable from our biological evolution that it makes perfect sense that we derive such joy from it.
An article by David Stripp from June of Last year points to a number of researchers who are exploring how human being’s uncanny knack for long-distance travel allowed us to survive against other, fast moving, predators.
Stripp explains that an “elite human runner can sustain speeds up to 6.5 meters per second Even run-of-the-mill joggers typically do between 3.2 and 4.2 meters per second, which means they can outrun dogs at distances greater than two kilometers.”
He sites some research recently conducted by Dennis M. Bramble and Daniel E. Lieberman of the University of Utah, which argues that, while later Homo Sapiens developed long range weapons that allowed them to hunt prey from afar, early human hunters had to rely on short-range spears and the like to hunt. Considering that our frail, hairless primate bodies aren’t particularly well disposed to being torn apart by an angry water buffalo, we instead utilized “ ‘persistence hunting’—chasing an antelope, for instance, until it was nearly keeling over with heat exhaustion—and scavenging.”
We chased things to death. Pretty cool.
Plus, a New York Times post from 2011 shows that physical exercise helps with a whole legion of psychological disorders, from depression to anxiety. It pulls from a particular piece of animal research that had been done at the National Institute of Mental Health that provides some evidence that exercise helps us develop coping methods for dealing with stress and social pressures.
In the study, it was found that mice that were allowed to physically exercise before being put in a shared cage with a larger, angry alpha-mouse were better able to readjust after being removed from the cage than mice who didn’t receive the same treatment.
All of this seems like pretty bad news for folks like me, who, despite all of this evidence, still dread the thought of swiping into the gym or putting on gym shorts. Luckily, there is some hope.
According to the New York Times, article, Dr. Lehmann, one of the lead authors of the study “does not believe that hours of daily exercise are needed or desirable to achieve emotional resilience. The mice in his lab ran only when and for as long as they wished, over the course of several weeks. Other animal experiments have intimated that too much exercise could contribute to anxiety, and Dr. Lehmann agrees that that outcome is possible. Moderate levels of exercise seem to provide the most stress-relieving benefits, he said.”
While I may still shiver at the thought of running the mile, there is still cause to hope that even folks like me can reap the psychological benefits of a good work out. As winter rolls in and we find ourselves collectively retreating to our sedentary hovels, it might be good to remember that a quick stroll around the hill could do us more good than we may think.