To Move Is to Thrive. It’s in Our Genes.

A need and desire to be in motion may have been bred into our DNA before we even became humans.

Comments: 68

  1. Animals are animate. They (we) need sustenance, and they're more likely to get it if they move around. The science reported here is well above my head, but it seems to me activity promoting genes have to have been part of our legacy all the way back to our days as single cells.

  2. I know plenty of humans that are not very animate, although indeed they are animals (we agree there).

  3. I need current events where do I find them

  4. Chimps feed fairly locally, right? Though they do hunt, much of their diet is fruits and insects--there is fairly little chasing going on. As we diverged from chimps by descending from the trees and entered the open savannah, we had to walk and run to survive, is that right? Well this would seem to be a genetic explanation for that phenomenon.

  5. @Hazlit We aren't descended from chimps, we share a common ancestor. They're cousins, not ancestors. It is unknown what kind of lifestyle our common ancestor had.

  6. @Hazlit - the author suggests exactly the opposite: i.e. that the shift from hunter-gatherer to "subsistence farming" about 10,000 years ago is the origin of the genetic shift.

  7. Some years back a study was done about the health of London transit workers. They compared bus drivers to the ticket takers. They found the later were much healthier than the drivers because they walked up and down the aisles all day while the drivers just sat. This new report confirms the results of the London study.

  8. I sometimes struggle between the two. When I moving I tend to be of certain state of mind where I don't really have a desire to eat or drink much but a strong desire to keep moving. When I am sedentary it is is inverted. I tend to want to eat and drink and stay sedentary. It has been a learned behavior to make sure I do properly nourish myself while in motion and to not constantly consume when I am in-active. As well as not to allow myself to dwell in a sedentary hole for extended periods of time very often. I say that as someone who exercises about 100 minutes a day.

  9. There are plenty of animals who are constantly on the move, much more so than us, and they bear no resemblance to humans or chimpanzees. So I don't really see the connection between being human and being active. If anything, the advancements of the human brain, which for example enabled us to invent machines to do our work for us, tend to make us much more sedentary. So the findings discussed in this piece don't really move me.

  10. @Jay Orchard It is only with the emergence of the personal computer that work and physical activity (PA) became separated. Until a hundred years ago most people worked in agriculture, which involves much PA (still true for people in India, China and Africa). Work in industry, and even in the office (typing!) involved for a long time much PA as well. You talk about machines that 'do our work for us': but, again, often such work involves PA. People who have a not-sedentary job (e.g., hair-dressers) suffer in old age from related diseases: there seems to be a minimum optimal amount for PA. Both too much and too little are bad for you.

  11. @What'sNew Typing does not even remotely count as physical activity, at least in terms of exercise in relation to this article.

  12. I must be carrying some cool mutations. I feel super chill on the couch. De-evolution is very real.

  13. So now that we sit all day. Are we expressing the idea that we want to end the species? That certainly goes well with the evangelicals trying to goad god into an apocalypse.

  14. I find the writers choice of “snippets” entertaining. It sounds similar to and also takes the place of “SNPs” (aka snips, or single nucleotide polymorphisms) which is what researchers are usually trying to look at with genome-wide association studies, without being overly technical.

  15. If you were lazy at the inflection point about 500,000 years ago "...you did not survive." So maybe we're at another inflection point?

  16. Yes!!! OMG, thank you! Now I can justify being a brilliant couch potato coding away all day to make really good money to enhance the survival chances of my descendents (future couch potatoes) so they can afford air conditioners as Climate Change encroaches. Thank you for helping me understand!

  17. @Philip - just like in the movie "Wall-E"!

  18. Further proof that humans have to keep moving...If we don't we are going to keep getting fatter and sicker! It's in our genes!

  19. Really now? I’m relatively inactive, and I’m as skinny as a scarecrow no matter how much I eat. Meanwhile I know lots if people who are quite overweight yet very active as well as into sports. So what about diet and health, our microbiome, the effect of packaged foods and preservatives and antibiotics as well as pesticides and antibiotics in our foods messing up our microbiomes, etc.? Or, more pertinent ti the article, how did the emergence of agriculture affect our microbiomes, or our intelligence. As for intelligence and brain development, fish tend to be more active than us humans... they need to be so as to get their oxygen from water passing through their gills. So why aren’t fish more “intelligent” than us? Although, granted, fish seem to have healthier lives. Speaking of which, how convenient that we humans be the ones defining intelligence. Dogs must really wonder why it is we’re not smart enough to just sniff out what it is we’re trying to find... That said I totally agree with you that a lot of people would feel better if they got off their duff, per their genetic imperative.

  20. @Katmom Cottle Gose And yet I'm not paid to 'keep moving'.

  21. Really enjoy all your contributions. You approach health and physical activity from so many interesting vantages. Excellent journalism!

  22. As someone with fibromyalgia, movement is unpleasant for me. Always has been, from childhood. My elementary school teachers always accused me of faking when I passed out on the playground when forced to participate in activities.

  23. @Frolicsome Teachers, are so smart aren't they? I had a hard time spelling, they thought I was lazy and stupid. (Dyslexic, with a 140 IQ) Most teachers are very incurious, and have little concept of the lifelong damage they do to human beings. There are some exceptions, and those are the ones we remember with fondness. Good luck to you.

  24. This is fascinating. It would be interesting to see if these differences are found in other animals and correlated with activity levels. Consider wolves and dogs: both tend to be active but the former generally much more so than the latter. In fact, how about the effects of domestication generally, remembering we too are a domesticated species? And are there corresponding differences between active - think orcas - and inactive - think manatees - marine mammals? The possibilities seem, well, almost endless.

  25. People living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle worked on average 4-5 hours a day, but this average included some incredibly strenuous days hunting large prey, some days entirely spent sitting around, sharing stories, and mending/making tools, and some days spent walking from one campsite to the next. Not really comparable to what modern humans have to do to make a living.

  26. I need to move, my rear gets sore from to much sitting Now if I could get my husband to move is a different story. Related to this is we have two 1 year old sibling cats, one bounces off the wall, takes her time eating and is slim. Her sister moves less and loves food, she is chubbier.

  27. Maybe you need to feed the skinny cat more and the fat cat less.

  28. @Richard Yeah, try that with cats.

  29. I don’t know... I get it... MOVEMENT is everything but using the term LAZY to make a point about sedentary life and correlation with particular chronic illnesses which is also partially true but doesn’t take into account genetics, preventative Care, resource access, cultural variables and so on! I also feel offended because as per usual, these articles don’t take into account many diseases involving sever chronic pain, disabilities that cause fainting like dysautonamia and many issues that cause exercise intolerance! Much more common then you think! Some diseases are really helped with exercise but many aren’t yet plenty of people are quick to judge what they know not. We are not lazy.... So many push this One Size Fits all approach and as this one young woman with a PhD in exercise physiology admitted to me before becoming so ill with multiple autoimmune diseases, dislocation disease (EDS) and more requiring many braces, a powered tilt and recline power wheelchair and more.... she USED to think inside her head that people in pain or fat or said negative adjective were just lazy or not trying hard enough! End of diatribe!

  30. Agreed... not to mention the effect of diet, the microbiome, food intolerances etc.

  31. @Flyfreeizzie Could not agree more. It's like when questionnaires ask if you drink sodas when what they really mean is sugary sodas. So much flawed science. If they want to help people exercise more, they need to concentrate much more on a holistic approach. And stop with the guilt approach. That turns me off even more.

  32. I feel most alive when I'm on the move.

  33. “But it turned out that most of the relevant snippets were far older, according to the database estimates, having probably arisen in early humans about 500,000 years ago, when our ancestors still were Homo erectus and not yet Homo sapiens — i.e., us.” Just to be clear, the relationship between Homo erectus and modern humans is far from clear. While Homo erectus likely is somehow ancestral to our kind, the details - whether our lineage came directly from erectus, whether there were intermediary lineages that were more directly ancestral to us, and how long ago we diverged from H erectus (perhaps much longer ago than 500,000 years ago) - are some of the fascinating unanswered questions about human evolution.

  34. Thank you again Gretchen for trying to shed a little light on how we got to the head of the pack. Certainly, humans were helped by the actions that wiped out the dinosaurs or we might not have made it. Enlightened people want (and need to have) this information to help humans go forward and to just understand what truly make us move. It also allows us to know why some really move while others are more sedentary. I am and have always been hyperactive while the vast majority of my relatives are very sedentary. I hitchhiked from TX to CA at my earliest opportunity, over 50 years later, most relatives are still in the dregs of TX and north LA. Many people do not want to have this type research done for the reasons you have stated, that their inactivity, as a group, is consistent with their medical problems. I want to know science and how to alter behavior to better overcome inherent obstacles. Knowing that activity wards off illnesses has always inspired me to move more. Hence I am in the process of moving to Singapore to do more study and assistance for the motivated and educated.

  35. This doesn’t seem like news. Sponges, the simplest animals, have no nervous system much less a brain and are sessile. A large powerful brain is basically synonymous with being built for responding to (or shaping) our environment = movement. A sedentary lifestyle in chimps (if true, I don’t know anything about chimps) is probably a derived character. Also, it’s just genetic economy. Genes that developed when most of the population was active are apt to work best in the internal environment of an active person.

  36. This article and the study it describes seem like another Just-So story (see Rudyard Kipling; e.g., How the leopard got its spots). We seem to be very susceptible to plausible narratives proposing cause and effect, especially evolutionary adaptations involving human evolution. Although plausibility seems to add weight to an argument, it is not a reliable feature of reality. There may be a correlation between activity level and animal movement, but it is trivial. I’m not really sure what hypothesis the study’s authors are trying to test and what pattern it might explain.

  37. @Maurie Beck Epigenetics, ("nature vs nurture") is a logical factor the article ignored. We are in the relative early days of genetic studies. Will humans understand our origins before we cause our own extermination?

  38. Our genes did not "urge" us to be active. If we were active, we lived and those genes stayed around.

  39. Well, if activity drive is 50% nature/genetics, those who are not blessed with the drive for high level to activity have to work with the other 50% unexplained by genes. Nurture. Knowledge. Use it or lose it, for healthy aging.

  40. I feel ever greater urgency to stay active as I get older, but as a caregiver that's not always easy to schedule. Thank you for your frequent articles reminding me to find the time for my own health.

  41. Oh come, on......biological determinism rears its ugly head again.

  42. The sensation of being in-motion has always intoxicated me. As a colicky infant, my dad took me on car rides. This bonded us well into my twenties...

  43. I'm shocked to read that osteoarthritis is the result of being inactive. This is a wear-and-tear disorder. Wear-and-tear comes from use. I have it, as do many my age. It's worse in the joints I use the most, such as my index finger on my dominant hand. I find that keeping moving is the best antidote for the pain of arthritis and other ills like fibromyalgia. I have less pain as well as an enhanced sense of well-being.

  44. @Barbara Remaining active definitely reduces pain and progress of arthritis IMHO and based on my experience.

  45. You can explain the human need for physical activity just as you can for any animal that has muscles or more fundamentally, lives and thrives to convert high quality energy (e.g., other life forms) into heat energy. But too much and you cause tissue damage. And too little, you develop metabolic syndrome.

  46. @A Goldstein Cruising through these comments it's really striking how many people must just glance at the article and then post whatever they believed before or were obsessed with, irrespective of any connection to the reported data. This comment at least is germane but nevertheless a good example: The reader has completely missed the point of the research and the article: It's NOT true that the health of "any animal with muscles" will decline with inactivity. Chimps, as the article points out, are our closest cousins and basically nothing bad happens to them if they sit around doing nothing. Gorillas too keep the same ripped physique in the zoo. But put yourself in lazy captivity to the TV and the couch and watch what happens . . . things go downhill. It's our special trait, which is why this research and report are so interesting.

  47. I'm curious as to how a genomic study, that does not account for the exciting discoveries uncovered by epigenetics, can still be considered viable research. While I'm new to understanding the history of genetic research, it's been made clear to me of the game change for science when epigenetics described that DNA should now be considered a blueprint, and not the unalterable edifice of genomic determinism. Or, to use the author's analogy— the DNA is the written symphony—a composition of sheet music with fixed notes. But it's how the score is read, by the external direction of the conductor, that determines the expression of those notes. In genetic expression, it's the external environment — outside the cell, and even outside the body — that determines which genetic behaviors actually emerge from the DNA blueprint. Science now estimates there are more than 30,000 behavior programs possible from each human gene. And science has also proven now that we can interfere with the environment, and thus directly affect gene expression. It would have been a much more interesting read—and a much more contemporary conversation—if the author had consulted epigenetic researchers for comment. Without reflection from the scientific branch that has superseded earlier theories of the genome, the findings reported here are weak from lack of context.

  48. @VM Stolsen I would argue that it still comes back to genetics. If, say, starvation causes epigenetics changes in the genomes, presumably they are not just willy nilly, but in specific areas to affect specific genes and cause advantageous adaptations. What tells the epigenetic machinery to change these areas (and also encodes the epigenetic machinery, since variants in epigenetic machinery could also be important)? The genome itself. So there's a good chance that variants that affect epigenetic state will also be picked up by this kind of study. However, these studies can be difficult to translate into more concrete terms. Ok, so we identified a region that is important for x characteristic? Why is it important? Is it a specific gene? Is it changes in epigenetics?It can take many labs many years to figure out. Or sometimes it's straight forward. Science can be hard to predict.

  49. This puff piece, residue of the 'gene-fer' road show originating with physics-envious bio-showmen, neglects the crucially important physical dependency of all life forms on preserving and expanding their energy reserves (and _access_ to more and other resources). Physical activity requires us to mentally overcome our natural tendency to be sedentary. Given that predisposition, the DNA sequences found to be correlated with physical busy-ness more likely contribute to the endoweds' ease in overcoming that historically protective (and reproductively advantageous) feature. Now, no butts about it: mount your bike and rip!

  50. "They had expected that the snippets promoting activity would have taken root between about 10,000 years ago, when humans began subsistence farming, a lifestyle that demands long hours of physical labor." Is the author suggesting that a hunter-gatherer lifestyle is less "movement" and less energetic and less "physical labor" than agriculture (subsistence farming)? I doubt that - and think the opposite is true. Data and literature to back the up, please!

  51. @Bill Wolfe Take a look at Against the Grain by James C. Scott

  52. So why has it taken so long for girls and women to be encouraged to participate in sports and be celebrated for it? It took a Title Nine, a Billy Jean King, etc to "approve"of physical exertion outside of childbirth.

  53. the best ideas and solutions are created in my brain when I partake in activities that are movement based.

  54. We are Spiritual Beings having a physical experience. Our Spirits have been handed the keys to these miraculous machines we call "bodies", machines we can "drive" - making them walk, jump, pick our nose, have sex… As infants & toddlers, we delight in our ability to control our body-machines, lying in our cribs, giggling about our moving fingers and toes; jumping off the step, shouting, "watch, Mommy!" Think of the delight of Jake Sully (the paraplegic ex-Marine in the movie Avatar, whose Essence is transferred from his broken human body into an otherworldly-tho'-remarkably-like-ours, Na'vi body), when he realizes he can again enjoy the Ecstasy of Movement. That's us, fellow peeps. Tho' we do it in reverse - starting out with our very own Na'vi body-Miracle, then gradually becoming bored with it and moving on to Very Important Things. Our fate is to forget The Miracle, to become "adults" who fret over Past and worry about Future and lose the Magic of Moving the Machine. Our gift, our opportunity, is to realize we've Forgotten and to Practice our return to that Miracle. In my fast-approaching dotage, I've been handed the gift of living in the endless hiking of The Glorious - the canyon country of southern UT. I can literally walk out my door and go for hours, in quiet solitude, climbing up cliff bands, dropping down into the next wash, moving, exploring… I wake up with aching, oft-damaged/repaired joints, then go for a hike and am Restored through Movement. Praise Jah!

  55. We are Spiritual Beings having a physical experience. Our Spirits have been handed the keys to these miraculous machines we call "bodies", machines we can "drive" - making them walk, jump, pick our nose, have sex… As infants & toddlers, we delight in our ability to control our body-machines, lying in our cribs, giggling about our moving fingers and toes; jumping off the step, shouting, "watch, Mommy!" Think of the delight of Jake Sully (the paraplegic ex-Marine in the movie Avatar, whose Essence is transferred from his broken human body into an otherworldly-tho'-remarkably-like-ours, Na'vi body), when he realizes he can again enjoy the Ecstasy of Movement. That's us, fellow peeps. Tho' we do it in reverse - starting out with our very own Na'vi body-Miracle, then gradually becoming bored with it and moving on to Very Important Things. Our fate is to forget The Miracle, to become "adults" who fret over Past and worry about Future and lose the Magic of Moving the Machine. Our gift, our opportunity, is to realize we've Forgotten and to Practice our return to that Miracle. In my fast-approaching dotage, I've been handed the gift of living in the endless hiking of The Glorious - the canyon country of southern UT. I can literally walk out my door and go for hours, in quiet solitude, climbing up cliff bands, dropping down into the next wash, moving, exploring… I wake up with aching, oft-damaged/repaired joints, then go for a hike and am Restored through Movement. Praise Jah!

  56. I do my best thinking in the pool.

  57. @John me too. Especially at night, under the moon. It’s peaceful, quiet, and you are buoyed.

  58. Amazing how we continue to debate the obvious things in life. "Oh, look. It has legs of some sort. Do you think it moves?" Form follows function. Alas, the intellect is not subject to the same rules. Our massive brain does not imply intelligence by any measure. Perhaps [he hypothesizes] it deters it. Perhaps, not only is ignorance bliss, but therein lies peace too. Lobotomies for the lot of you! :)

  59. This is a discussion that’s been taking place in several areas of expertise for years. I suspect that the type of movement has an effect - not all movements confers equal benefit. Archetypal shapes such as squatting, for long periods of time, are beneficial for multiple systems (digestion, respiration, circulatory - all of which impact other bodily systems such as endocrine and lymphatic). I’ve not seen studies that compare the efficacy of different movement patterns (whole body versus isolating just the biceps, as an example). An educated guess is that archetypal whole body activity is particularly beneficial. Anyone know of any relevant data or studies?

  60. I must be a genetic anomaly. The thought of regularly exercising the minimum required weekly bores me to tears. I exercise a little to keep my joints flexible, but to do more than that - I'd rather chew glass. Nope, give me a book and I'll be happy. But I wish the medical community would stop trying to guilt me into exercising more. I know I'm not the only one who feels this way. Why don't they do a study on that if they want to do studies?

  61. @Nova yos Galan Because like it or not, the scientific evidence is undisputed. Physical exercise greatly improves mental and physical health, especially as we age (e.g. improved bone density, muscle mass, cognition and cardio vascular capabilities). Reporting on this is a public good considering aging population and medical costs.

  62. One of the mechanisms of survival is conserving energy by staying still. In tropical countries, not moving meant staying cooler due to less metabolic activity. There’s an evolutionary advantage to both.

  63. Just to add some levity, my parents used to say that I had "ants in my pants" because I was NEVER still. Ironically, because in those times I was usually into mischief, my father nicknamed me "Barbara Monkeyshine." (That was prompted in my mind today because of the genetic inquiry re: chimps.) I am still quick active and prefer moving to still.

  64. The most entertaining and, for my money, most informative discussion on this subject is a book called "Why We Run: A Natural History" by Bern Heinrich. Heinrich is a professor, best seller author, scientist who made great discoveries on the thermoregulation abilities of insects. He is also in the Maine Sports Hall of Fame as a champion marathoner and ultra-marathoner. I will give you a little bit of a spoiler now, (don't worry there are plenty of revelations throughout the book): it turns out that humans are endurance predators. Humans can run so well over distance - particularly in the heat - that they can actually run other animals, such as antelope and deer, to the point of collapse and even death. Recent studies also indicate that the size of the human brain increased with our distance running - a correlation that is found in other endurance-athlete mammal species with larger than expected brains - such as dogs and dolphins. Furthermore, the NY Times has published several articles over the last few years on the link between exercise and brain health, prevention of dementia, and short term memory. I know of many horses that are kept in small paddocks with little exercise and their muscles do not seem to get any smaller. House cats maintain muscle tone with just some stretching and the occasional "pounce." But humans lose not only muscle tone but also mental and emotional fitness without exercise. It is the one thing that we all need as humans.

  65. @David There's nothing healthy about keeping horses in small paddocks with little exercise, and they definitely do lose condition as they too are natural athletes. Horses' bodies change and improve in response to exercise. Furthermore a horse restricted from natural movement (small paddocks with little exercise) are prone to boredom. anxiety and a variety of behavioral and health issues. Humans aren't quite that special.

  66. Thank you for writing “humans and other animals”. I believe it’s important to keep this fact in our minds and bodies as we move through the world and make choices for our health.

  67. Thanks!

  68. I think I evolved out of this gene. :-)