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Scientist prescribes wonder drug: exercise

Staff Correspondent
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We need physical education programmes, says Harvard professor

The better life?:Armed with traps, Tiwa tribesmen begin their hunt in the hills of Assam.— FILE PHOTO: RITU RAJ KONWAR
The better life?:Armed with traps, Tiwa tribesmen begin their hunt in the hills of Assam.— FILE PHOTO: RITU RAJ KONWAR

There’s a simple prescription that could help cut the risk of heart disease by 50 per cent, stroke by 20 per cent, and diabetes, breast cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease by 50 per cent. In recent times, several studies conducted in the U.S. have corroborated the effect of this ‘wonder drug’, which a professor in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University prescribes with great conviction and passion.

No pharmaceutical interventions are needed. Daniel Lieberman reveals that his simple ‘one size fits all’ prescription is exercise; regular physical activity from a young age. Delivering a lecture on ‘Why exercise really is medicine: an evolutionary perspective’ at the National Centre for Biological Sciences here, Prof. Lieberman spoke about how the evolution of the human species from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a sedentary one had resulted in adaptations that have involved huge trade-offs.

Prof. Lieberman says that a very athletic hunter-gatherer life persisted until very recently.

The shift from hunting-gathering to subsistence farming, and then early industrialisation along with some farming, has seen a 15 per cent reduction in physical activity.

Using several U.S.-based health studies and surveys, the professor argues that inactive lifestyles and lack of exercise are the second leading cause of mortality in the country. “I believe that though India is not there yet, the large upwardly mobile middle class here will soon catch up.”

Many modern treatments, he says, actively promote ‘mismatch conditions’ by treating symptoms for which the body is not adapted. Citing the example of one such condition, he explains that 10 per cent of Americans use sleeping pills for insomnia or overuse antibiotics, which results in increased infections.

Prof. Lieberman says that while evolution hasn’t stopped, “cultural evolution is now a more powerful and rapid force than natural selection”.

“An initiative to teach healthy eating in schools didn’t take off the way it was expected to.” After painting a very bleak picture, supported by statistics and research, Prof. Lieberman told his audience that it wasn’t as if all was lost. “There is a way out, but it’s not easy, and we have to start early. We need serious physical education in schools, and also in colleges.”

Prof. Lieberman points out that colleges stopped physical education programmes as early as the 1970s. “This is where we will have to start changing things.”

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