Book Review- Exercised. Why Something We Never Evolved To Do Is Healthy and Rewarding by Daniel Lieberman

I haven’t posted a book review here in what feels like years even though I’ve been reading more than ever since the pandemic started. I just really hadn’t been reading any running-related books, until I heard about this one, Exercised. Why Something We Never Evolved To Do Is Healthy and Rewarding by Daniel Lieberman. Dr. Lieberman is Edwin M. Lerner Professor of Biological Sciences and professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University.

Drawing on Dr. Lieberman’s field experience studying hunter-gatherer tribes plus many other studies and scientific articles, this book has more scientific paper references than most running books. In fact, the “Notes” section is a whopping 74 pages! If you’re the type of person who likes something to back up a claim, this is the book for you.

The book is divided into four parts- 1) In Activity, 2) Speed, Strength, and Power, 3) Endurance, and 4) Exercise in the Modern World. The premise of this book is that evolutionary and anthropological perspectives can help us better understand the paradox of exercise and why and how something we never evolved to do is healthy, as the title states. Dr. Lieberman also uses a play on words in the title by referring to exercists as, “People who like to brag about exercise and who repeatedly remind us that exercise is medicine, a magic pill that slows aging and delays death.”

Many myths are discussed such as “Sitting. Is it the new smoking?” He puts forth such questions as how sitting is quantified and how it’s not always black and white. For example, what if you’re sitting but doing something active like playing a musical instrument or making an arrow? The myth that we all need 8 hours of sleep each night is also discussed in detail, with studies to back up his claims and five questions to ask yourself if you’re concerned about your sleep.

Walking is also discussed in length, both in the context of people in non-industrialized countries who walk out of necessity, in comparison to people in industrialized countries who walk for exercise. The effect of walking on weight loss is also discussed. Dr. Lieberman states that even if you walk an additional 10,000 steps a day, or about 5 miles extra, that will only burn an extra 250 calories a day. His point is that walking by itself won’t promote massive weight loss, and further, to burn significant calories, one would have to walk for hours every day, something most people either wouldn’t be willing to do or wouldn’t have the time to do.

Endurance and aging is also discussed and the science behind the headlines. Dr. Lieberman shows using graphs and figures how that exercise not only extends one’s life span but perhaps more importantly expands one’s health span, which relates to quality of life. He also discusses ways to coerce others to exercise and gives an example of a CEO of a company in Sweden that requires his employees to exercise together weekly.

Concrete examples are given how to make exercise more fun like exercising with friends or groups, listen to podcasts, music, books, or watch something if you’re on a treadmill, get outside, dance or play sports and games, mix things up, choose realistic goals for yourself, and reward yourself for exercising (although not with vast amounts of food so that it negates the effects). He also has tips on how to make exercise a habit.

Dr. Lieberman gives exact numbers of how much we should exercise. According to a 2018 study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, for “substantial health benefits,” adults should do a minimum of 150 minutes each week of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or a combination of the two. Children need an hour of exercise every day. Finally, weight training twice a week was recommended. Why the vast difference in numbers between adults and children is not discussed, but I found it striking.

Final words of wisdom in the book are to “make exercise necessary and fun, do mostly cardio but also weights, some is better than none, keep it up as you age.” Those are pretty solid words of advice, in my opinion. Although the book mostly isn’t filled with anything I hadn’t heard before, I found it interesting, especially reading about the hunter-gatherer tribes and the comparisons to the average American or European. I enjoyed this book and would recommend it, especially if you like reading about different societies or the evolutionary and historical background behind exercise.

Have you read this book? Any interest in reading it?

Happy running!


Author: runningtotravel

I'm a long distance runner with a goal of running a half marathon in all 50 states in the US. I also love to travel so I travel to other places when I'm not running races. Half the fun is planning where I'm going to go next!

7 thoughts on “Book Review- Exercised. Why Something We Never Evolved To Do Is Healthy and Rewarding by Daniel Lieberman”

    1. Some of it was common sense but a lot of it was research either the author himself had done or other researchers had done, so I really learned some things. Likewise, if I knew some of the things he discussed, I understood more in-depth about them. I thought he did a good job incorporating the history and background into exercise, but some people may not like that. He was definitely looking at exercise from an anthropologist’s point of view.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I will definitely be adding this to my book list, especially since he addresses exercise from an anthropologist point of view. Also, I didn’t realize til this year that nutrition is key to health- meaning I can’t “outrun a bad diet” no matter how many miles I run! So it’s nice to hear him reinforce walking won’t be the answer- especially with literature to support it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So true that you can’t outrun a bad diet, and you especially can’t outwalk a bad diet. I wish more trainers at gyms would emphasize this to their clients. I hope you like the book!


  2. In a Peloton class one day, the instructor said we need to “move more, exercise less”. I believe that’s right on the money!

    My Garmin tracks the 150 minute thing. It counts running as double (well, vigorous exercise, basically). Even running only 3 x week I am usually at least double that.

    I still do do too much sitting though . . .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agree with your instructor’s comment completely! There’s a huge section in the book on sitting. It might surprise you just how much people that live in unindustrialized areas sit. The difference is they aren’t sitting on furniture but the ground, which makes a big difference and most people in the US aren’t sitting on the ground, or it’s rare if they do.

      Liked by 1 person

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