Decline in Physical Fitness: Why Humans Aren’t as Fit as They Used to Be

Decline in Physical Fitness: Why Humans Aren’t as Fit as They Used to Be

(Last Updated On: April 1, 2019)

Decline in Physical Fitness: Why Humans Aren’t as Fit as They Used to Be

Rates of physical activity have shown a downward decline over the past fifty years. A 2005 study identified a number of possible reasons people are more inactive these days. There’s readily available public transportation, reducing the need to walk or bike to work, and declining activity at home. Heck, with technology and remote controls, you hardly have to get up out of your chair. Plus, many folks work desk jobs where they sit 90% of the day. Unless they do a regular workout, most people are hardly moving these days. Sedentary has become a way of life. Despite the drop in physical activity and fitness over the past 50 years, this may only be the tip of the iceberg. Our ancestors seem to have been far more physically fit than the average person is today.

How Much Have Fitness Levels Declined?

Researchers at Cambridge University looked at the skeletons of people from early farming societies, thousands of years ago, and compared them to people of today. Not surprisingly, the bones in their lower extremities showed people from this period in history were more physically active than modern-day men and women are. In fact, based on this research, they believe early farmers 7,000 years ago had a fitness level comparable to cross-country runners in modern times and their lower extremity strength was comparable to many modern-day athletes. This isn’t really surprising. For people who lived even earlier, hunter-gatherer societies, exercise wasn’t optional. It was woven into the fabric of their lives and necessary for survival. Hunting for food and running from predator’s burns a lot of calories! In fact, research shows the typical individual living in a hunter-gatherer society burned between 800 and 1,200 calories a day in physical activity. This high level of activity also built strong muscles and bones. The average person today only burns a relatively small amount of calories in physical activities or exercise.

It wasn’t just the men in hunter-gatherer societies that were in stellar physical shape. Women were on the move too forging for plant-based foods. This involved lots of bending, stooping and physical activity like digging and carrying what they gathered. Plus, they often carried children along with them. Women in these societies constructed shelters too – hardly light work! This is in sharp contrast to the office jobs of today. Hunter-gatherer life was anything but sedentary. A far cry different from modern-day lifestyles!

Why is this significant? Some experts argue the higher level of fitness people had in these earlier times is what our genes are adapted to. The normal human state is to be active. Because humans are no longer as active as their ancestors, we suffer a host of health problems like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and osteoporosis – not to mention psychological problems like depression. Of course, there were no processed foods and industrial pollution to contend with either. These days our lives are complex but this doesn’t necessarily translate into movement. As experts point out, our bodies were made to move. Not are only are humans equipped to handle physical activity and work, we thrive on it.

 How to Thrive in an Increasingly Inactive Society

Research already shows sitting is lethal. People who sit for hours at a time are at higher risk for health problems like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and have higher overall mortality. According to one meta-analysis, too little activity accounts for 9% of premature mortality worldwide.

Why is sitting so bad? When you sit most of the day, you have higher glucose and insulin levels after meals. That has a negative impact on metabolic health. You don’t have to run a marathon to reverse the effects of “sittingitis.” Even a few minutes of low-intensity exercise, a walk around the office helps. You weren’t designed to sit for long periods of time so you need to break up periods of sitting with periods of movement, even brief ones.

People living in hunter-gatherer and early farming societies didn’t go to a gym to get their exercise. Instead, they got a diverse workout simply doing their daily activities. The movements they did built strength and improved flexibility and endurance. You can do the same by varying your workouts. Circuit workouts, high-intensity interval workouts, power workouts, and strength training all help you build a strong, defined body that’s functionally fit. When you’re strong and functionally fit it carries over into every aspect of your life.

The Bottom Line?

Yes, activity levels have greatly declined since early times but our bodies are still built to move and be challenged. Don’t be afraid to take on new workout challenges and push a little harder. Your body is capable of handling hard work whether it’s running from predators and building shelter or swinging kettlebells and doing jump squats. It’s built into your genes. Just as importantly, break up periods of sitting during the day with some activity every 30 minutes or so even if it’s just a short break to get up and stretch. Do it for your health.



Science Daily. “From athletes to couch potatoes: Humans through 6,000 years of farming”

Annu Rev Public Health. 2005;26:421-43.

PLOS One. “Daily Sitting Time and All-Cause Mortality: A Meta-Analysis”

PLOS Blogs. “Sitting for just a couple hours has measurable (and negative) health impact”

The Physician and Sportsmedicine. “Organic Fitness: Physical Activity Consistent with Our Hunter-Gatherer Heritage”


Related Articles By Cathe:

Does Being Physically Fit Reduce the Risk of a Cold?

Lack of Exercise is More Harmful to the Muscles of Older People

Physical Inactivity or Obesity: Which is the Bigger Health Threat?


One thought on “Decline in Physical Fitness: Why Humans Aren’t as Fit as They Used to Be

  1. Hi, Cathe!! I loved your article on hunter/gatherers. This is becoming a new view on how our ancestors got by. I also have asked some science friends of mine, and they say that the air was so much cleaner back then!!! People were larger and they were not as slow and dumb, as some of society would like us to think they were. I also want to make a point of the high vitamin contents they were getting in their vegetables and fruit, alone!!! They had clean water, clean fish, and their meat was not coming from farms like, Con-Agra, which uses so many hormones and antibiotics in their cattle. Our children have had an alarming resistance to disease because of eating meat with anti-biotic medication coursing through our meat. The Hunter/Gathers ate pure, fresh, grasses and grains, so they were in excellent condition, as well. I have a best friend of mine, who is a retired teacher with a Masters Teachers award. She has actually, through her 35 years of teaching, seen girls starting their menses cycles earlier and earlier. We used to start our menses cycle at 14 or even 16 was very normal. Now, in the classroom, my friend is seeing 8 and 9 year old girls developing breasts and starting their periods!!! This can not be good. Research has been done to suggest that the less periods a woman has in her lifetime is in direct relationship of her chances of getting Breast Cancer and other reproductive Cancers, especially, the silent killer, ovarian cancer!!! That means that back in thousands and thousands of years ago, women would get pregnant, breast feed, and not have a child again until about 1 more year. Sure, the women were probably pregnant all the time, but they were not dying of cancer. And the children were very much needed for their help with the older members of the Tribes. I would bet you a million dollars (if I had it, LOL) that children back then were 20xs more intelligent than todays children. They had to be. There was always death at the door, and children were often the easiest prey to catch. But, I just love this subject, I bet you couldn’t tell, LOL!!! Anyway, we are learning more and more about our past ancestors, and it maybe too late to undue all the damage that we’ve done to our planet. Which is why I pray to God and exercise!!! It gets rid of my stress, and I realize I don’t have to ‘fix’ anything, just take baby steps now that am out of bed for over 4 years and just getting back into working out!!! I was right!!! Working out is ‘curing’ my back, not laying around all day feeling in worse pain. Thank you so much for the article you wrote. You could write a book on all the information we are learning about our past ancestors!!! You keep my mind alive, Cathe, Thanks, Glori.

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