I study the evolution of human physical activity, and how and why our bodies are the way they are. It’s a topic I’ve been interested in a long time.
My previous book was called “The Story of the Human Body — Evolution, Health, and Disease.” It’s about mismatch diseases, how our bodies are poorly adapted for the world that we’ve created for ourselves, and why that makes us sick.
While I was finishing that book…This is a true story. There really was a moment. Sometimes a book starts with a moment, and this book really did.
I was finishing up that book. I was putting up the final touches on the book. I’ve got invited to Ironman in Kona. There is a medical conference that precedes the race every year. It’s the best medical conference on the planet, by the way. If you get a chance to go, it’s just awesome.
You get to watch the race. I’m not a triathlete. I love to run. I like to bike, but no way would I do that open water swimming. 2.4 mile of open water swimming is not for me.
Anyway, so I was having fun, and I enjoyed the race, but it’s crazy what those people do. To do that, 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, then a marathon, in a little over 8 hours is just astonishing. That’s not a human accomplishment. Anyway, so I left that race feeling pretty astonished, and also very pleased not to be an Ironman.
Not long after, I was in Northern Mexico doing fieldwork with a Tarahumara, who are famous for their long-distance running. They have their famous races that are Ironman-like. They go on forever and ever, and I was wondering, what’s going on? Why does a small number of people do this?
I was collecting data. I talked to one elderly guy who actually raced. He was one of the racers, because most Tarahumara, by the way, do not run long distances.
It’s one of the myths about exercising, and one of them is that people who are uncontaminated by civilization can do whatever they want. Lift huge rocks over their heads and run ultra marathons. That’s just nonsense.
Anyway, so I asked this guy, like how he trained? Everybody had been asking before about training, didn’t really understand my question because they don’t train. They don’t have even a word for it. When I explained to him through this interpreter who was explaining this gringo, he runs five miles every morning to get fit, and whatever.
He looked at me and he said, “Why would anybody run if they didn’t have to?” Here’s a guy who runs 50, 60-mile races. Suddenly, I had that sudden realization that among the many things that are weird about the modern world, going to school, reading, wearing shoes, exercise is also one of them, because physical activity is moving. It’s using your body to do stuff.
Exercise is defined as voluntary discretionary physical activity for the sake of health and fitness. Not even these guys who run, like the Tarahumara, they don’t consider it exercise. It’s a form of prayer for them. They don’t do it for health and fitness. It’s a completely modern abnormal strange thing.
I had this sudden thought that weird exercise, about exercise, people are confused, anxious, ambivalent, fed up with being nagged about it. People who brag about it, it’s very off-putting.
People don’t know what to do. We’re exercised about exercise, and to start understanding that, to start unraveling that, we have to first understand that we’re asking people to choose to do something that’s inherently unnatural.
It’s not bad for you, but it’s inherently unnatural. Until we get that under our belt, we are never going to make any serious progress.