DARWIN isn’t required reading for public health officials, but he should be. One reason that heart disease, diabetes and obesity have reached epidemic levels in the developed world is that our modern way of life is radically different from the hunter-gatherer environments in which our bodies evolved. But which modern changes are causing the most harm?
Many in public health believe that a major culprit is our sedentary lifestyle. Faced with relatively few physical demands today, our bodies burn fewer calories than they evolved to consume — and those unspent calories pile up over time as fat. The World Health Organization, in discussing the root causes of obesity, has cited a “decrease in physical activity due to the increasingly sedentary nature of many forms of work, changing modes of transportation and increasing urbanization.”…Our findings add to a growing body of evidence suggesting that energy expenditure is consistent across a broad range of lifestyles and cultures. Of course, if we push our bodies hard enough, we can increase our energy expenditure, at least in the short term. But our bodies are complex, dynamic machines, shaped over millions of years of evolution in environments where resources were usually limited; our bodies adapt to our daily routines and find ways to keep overall energy expenditure in check.
All of this means that if we want to end obesity, we need to focus on our diet and reduce the number of calories we eat, particularly the sugars our primate brains have evolved to love. We’re getting fat because we eat too much, not because we’re sedentary. Physical activity is very important for maintaining physical and mental health, but we aren’t going to Jazzercise our way out of the obesity epidemic.