Evolution of Fitness in Humans: The Sedentary Shift

There’s a growing recognition of the harm incurred by prolonged inactivity (sedentary lifestyle) and the resulting lack of fitness. When did it become so common to lead a sedentary life? Humans weren’t always like this, what happened? Discover how the shift to a sedentary lifestyle came about and explore fitness trends that anyone can do, especially if you are wanting to stay fit outside of having a gym membership.

Fitness Trends Over Time

Evolution of Fitness in Humans

From the time of prehistoric hunter-gatherers, humans have engaged in vigorous physical activity as a matter of survival.

In 2004, research published in the journal Nature concluded that “endurance running is a derived capability of the genus Homo, originating about 2 million years ago, and may have been instrumental in the evolution of the human body form.”1

Changes in Fitness Routines Throughout History

Two hundred years ago, the majority of the American work force was employed in agriculture, which involved hours of monotonous heavy labor.

The Industrial Revolution lured many men, women, and children from farms to factories, yet labor was still often brutally demanding.

The relief from dangerous and exhausting physical drudgery was a boon to humankind. Yet the rise of desk jobs, along with such developments as television and computers that capture much of our spare time, has resulted in a large portion of the population spending most of its waking hours in a seated position. Decreased physical demands have lowered our caloric requirements, which, when combined with overconsumption of sugar and saturated fat, has contributed to the alarming prevalence of overweightness and obesity in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 70% of Americans are now overweight or obese.2

Beginning in the 1950s, our need for regular exercise became evident. From Jack LaLanne’s TV fitness program, to Jane Fonda’s workout videos of the ’80s, to the exercise trends of the present day, there has been a continuously expanding awareness of physical activity as an essential component of a healthy lifestyle.

What’s more, the body of scientific evidence confirming the harm of prolonged inactivity and the benefit of regular exercise has exploded during the past decade.

For example:
  • Among 165,087 participants in the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study, the risk of dying during a 6.6-year period was 28% greater among those who watched five or more hours of television per day compared to adults who watched less than three hours.3
  • In a study involving three U.S. population samples that included a total of 61,141 people, those who perceived themselves as less active than others had as much as a 71% greater risk of dying than those who perceived themselves as more active during follow-up periods of up to 21 years.4
With all the widely publicized evidence available, why don’t people exercise? Most individuals cite time constraints as their main excuse. But could it be that the mind rebels against the thought of an hour on a boring treadmill or endless, repetitive calisthenics?

In that case, how about participating in some of the fun, exotic fitness trends of the day? If you’re tired of the gym, try something you’ve never even thought about doing.

Think Outside the Box - Fitness Trends

No Gym Membership? No Problem!

Simple Fitness Trend: Dance like no one’s watching

Dancing to an energetic beat can get you moving like nothing else. Flamenco, belly dance, Zumba, and Bollywood-style dancing are joyful and energizing. If you’re adventurous, try pole dancing or even aerial dance.

Martial Arts Fitness Trends: Defend yourself

Boxing, karate, jiu–jitsu, and other martial arts are not only challenging forms of exercise but can also help you develop more confidence.

Outdoor Fitness Trend: High adventure

Scuba diving, hiking in an exotic locale, kayaking, rock climbing (outdoor or indoor), learning to surf—the possibilities are breathtaking!

Family Fitness Trends: Can’t get away?

A mini trampoline provides a low impact workout surface to enjoy the benefits of plyometrics (jump training) to the beat of your favorite tunes.

Adopting a dog from your local shelter will leave you with no excuse to get outside and walk, rain or shine. If you’ve never experienced the joy of animal companionship, now’s the time!

If you have children, try getting the whole family involved in something they really enjoy, such as bicycling or swimming.

The Bottom Line
Changes to lifestyle and work patterns over time have impacted the amount of physical activity people are getting. And research confirms this decline in physical activity has had a negative impact on health and longevity.

Exercise doesn’t have to be exhausting or boring. By engaging in enjoyable activities that challenge your mind as well as your body, you’ll look better, feel better, and have more energy.

Consult your physician before engaging in an exercise program if you have a health condition that may make a particular physical activity unsafe. Also remember that sound nutrition is a must to support your body in any physical endeavor.


  1. Bramble DM et al. Nature. 2004 Nov 18;432(7015):345-52.
  2. CDC/National Center for Health Statistics. May 2017. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/obesity-overweight.htm
  3. Keadle SK et al. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2015 Dec 18;12:156.
  4. Zahrt OH et al. Health Psychol. 2017 Nov;36(11):1017-1025.


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