Anyone whose resolve to exercise in 2013 is a bit shaky might want to consider an emerging scientific view of human evolution. It suggests that we are clever today in part because a million years ago, we could outrun and outwalk most other mammals over long distances.
Our brains were shaped and sharpened by movement, the idea goes, and we continue to require regular physical activity in order for our brains to function optimally.
The role of physical endurance in shaping humankind has intrigued anthropologists and gripped the popular imagination for some time. In 2004, the evolutionary biologists Daniel E. Lieberman of Harvard and Dennis M. Bramble of the University of Utah published a seminal article in the journal Nature titled “Endurance Running and the Evolution of Homo,” in which they posited that our bipedal ancestors survived by becoming endurance athletes, able to bring down swifter prey through sheer doggedness, jogging and plodding along behind them until the animals dropped.
Endurance produced meals, which provided energy for mating, which meant that adept early joggers passed along their genes. In this way, natural selection drove early humans to become even more athletic, Dr. Lieberman and other scientists have written, their bodies developing longer legs, shorter toes, less hair and complicated inner-ear mechanisms to maintain balance and stability during upright ambulation. Movement shaped the human body.
But simultaneously, in a development that until recently many scientists viewed as unrelated, humans were becoming smarter. Their brains were increasing rapidly in size.