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Harvard Health Professor Busts These Dangerous Exercise Myths

Get those joggers out – Daniel Lieberman is set to change everything you know about exercise. From the misconceptions around the genetic influence on our health to the scare tactics around sitting too much, the Harvard Professor shared a few powerful words on the Diary of a CEO podcast that’ll inspire you to go for a run – today. 

Daniel Lieberman is a prominent American biologist and paleoanthropologist known for his research on human evolution and the evolutionary basis of human adaptations – basically, why we are how we are. 

Photo Credit: Diary of a CEO

Some of the Harvard Professor's notable contributions to the field include:

Endurance Running Hypothesis: Lieberman is well-known for his research on the evolution of human running capabilities. He proposed the "endurance running hypothesis," which suggests that one of the key factors contributing to the success of early humans as hunters was their ability to engage in persistence hunting, a form of long-distance running to track and exhaust prey. This theory has sparked significant discussion and research in the field of paleoanthropology.

Foot Strike Patterns: Lieberman has conducted extensive research on foot strike patterns in running, particularly the differences between forefoot and heel striking. His work has contributed to discussions about the potential benefits and risks of different running techniques and footwear choices.

Evolutionary Perspectives on Physical Activity: He has explored the evolutionary origins of physical activity and the role it plays in maintaining health. His research has emphasised the importance of physical activity in the context of human evolution – but it’s his recent appearance on podcast Diary of a CEO that’s got people talking.

“Women who get 150 minutes of exercise a week have a 30-50% lower breast cancer risk,” Dr Lieberman tells the podcast.

While we all know how important physical exercise is, there are a number of myths impeding our progress – Dr Lieberman smashes a few of them.

Sitting Isn’t the New Smoking


“It’s not how much we sit, but how we sit,” Dr Lieberman says. “People who get up every once in a while do better, it’s like turning on the engine of your car.”

  • Sitting Duration Matters: Prolonged, uninterrupted sitting for extended periods can indeed be associated with health issues. This sedentary behaviour can lead to problems like poor posture, back pain, and increased risk of chronic conditions, including obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.
  • Sitting Ergonomics: How we sit plays a significant role. Using ergonomic chairs and setting up workstations properly can help reduce the strain on our bodies when sitting for extended periods.
  • Movement Breaks: Taking regular breaks to stand up, stretch, or walk around is essential. Research suggests that even brief breaks from sitting can have a positive impact on health by improving circulation and reducing muscle tension.
  • Physical Activity: The key is to balance sitting with physical activity. Regular exercise and physical activity are essential for overall health and can counteract the negative effects of sitting. The more active you are, the less detrimental sitting becomes. 

Genes Are Important, But Lifestyle is More Important


Genes play a crucial role in determining an individual's susceptibility to certain health conditions. Some diseases have a strong genetic component, meaning that having specific genetic variants can increase the risk of developing those conditions. Lifestyle choices, on the other hand, including diet, physical activity, smoking, and alcohol consumption, have a substantial impact on preventing chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers.  Lifestyle includes exposure to environmental factors, such as pollution and toxins, which can affect health, so making choices to minimise exposure to harmful environmental factors is essential for overall wellbeing – but, we know, sometimes it’s easier said than done when you live in the big smoke! But there are things we can control, like what we eat, how we exercise and manage our stresses.

“If you want to reduce your risk of disease, exercise lowers your risk substantially,” Dr Lieberman says.

But the professor doesn’t deny the significance of genes, rather it emphasises that lifestyle choices have a profound impact on health and can often mitigate genetic predispositions. In other words, while genetics may load the gun, lifestyle often pulls the trigger.

Running Isn’t Necessarily Bad for Your Knees


The belief that running is bad for your knees is a common misconception that has persisted for years. However, the truth is that running, when done properly and with appropriate precautions, is not inherently harmful to your knees. In fact, running can have numerous benefits for your overall health, including cardiovascular fitness, mental well-being, and weight management. Here are several reasons why running isn't necessarily bad for your knees: 

  • Strengthens Muscles: Running is a weight-bearing exercise that helps strengthen the muscles surrounding your knees. Strong muscles provide better support and stability to your knee joints, reducing the risk of injury.
  • Improves Joint Health: Regular running can contribute to improved joint health by promoting the production of synovial fluid, which lubricates the joints. Proper lubrication can help reduce friction and wear and tear on the knee joints.
  • Weight Management: Maintaining a healthy weight is crucial for knee health. Running is an effective way to burn calories and manage your weight, which can relieve stress on your knee joints.
  • Bone Health: Running is a weight-bearing activity that can increase bone density. Stronger bones can provide better support for your knees and reduce the risk of conditions like osteoporosis.
  • Joint Adaptation: The human body is adaptable. Over time, the joints, ligaments, and tendons can adapt to the demands of running. Gradually increasing your running intensity and using proper form can help reduce the risk of overuse injuries.
  • Proper Footwear and Technique: Choosing the right running shoes and using proper running technique can help mitigate the impact on your knees. Well-fitted shoes with appropriate cushioning and support can absorb shock and reduce stress on your joints.
  • Cross-Training: Incorporating cross-training activities, such as strength training, stretching, and flexibility exercises, into your routine can help balance muscle strength and flexibility, reducing the risk of imbalances that can strain the knees.

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