Homo Cursus, the Running Ape

Homo sapiens are a highly mobile species. Along with opposable thumbs and a specially-designed brain, not to mention a few other nifty capacities, our bipedal locomotion is what makes us uniquely effective as survivors (Human Adaptability and Health). Over long enough distances, particularly in the heat of midday, humans can outrun or run down almost any animal. This is why the earliest humans were persistence hunters, a practice some tribes still use. Humans have been constantly on the move. That is how homo sapiens ended up in nearly every corner of the world. Maybe we should be called homo cursus, instead.

Throughout our life, we’ve always been into running. As a kid, in being physically active and athletic, we were one of the fastest kids in our class; although running is something all kids will do naturally, assuming they aren’t crippled, obese, and/or sickly (that the present generation of kids does little running around doesn’t bode well). We continued playing soccer, a sport requiring leg fitness like few others, into high school. And running has remained one of our favorite activities. Though a relaxed and meditative jog is most enjoyable, we’ve also gotten back into the habit of doing wind sprints, a variation of high-intensity interval training (HIIT), something we used to do in soccer practice.

Being in shape does make one feel good, no minor positive outcome considering the epidemic of mood disorders in this modern age of stress and sickliness. And there is nothing quite like cardio exercise, in particular. There is no doubt about the health benefits, in decreasing the risk of nearly every category of disease, even if one can’t outrun a bad diet (besides, there are better ways for losing excess body fat). But aerobic exercise is also nice simply in having the full lung capacity for everyday breathing; let us just say that oxygen is a good thing and the more of it generally the better. Energy, alertness, and stamina is another a nice bonus.

There are still other potential benefits, some being less immediate. It’s recommended to get in shape, if for no other reason than preparing for the unpredictable — none of us knows what the future will bring. As explained in one popular movie, “The first rule of Zombieland: Cardio. When the virus struck, for obvious reasons, the first ones to go were the fatties.” Zombies typically are slow, easily outpaced by a moderate gait, about anything faster than a casual walk. When masses of zombies are everywhere, speed is helpful and endurance is key. Don’t risk fighting zombies when you can otherwise escape; and such escape would be a constant necessity.

Okay, okay. So, you don’t believe in zombies. Let’s say apocalypse is caused by a different global catastrophe, such as mass death from plague or mass destruction of nuclear war. Having good cardio still will be useful for running away from roving gangs of enslavers and cannibals, along with the occasional psychopath and robber, or maybe an invading army; not to mention various mutant creatures, in the case of nuclear apocalypse. Sure, there are plenty of vehicles left behind when most of the population dies off, but they are largely blocking all of the roads and, besides, gasoline eventually runs out (do you really want, as in Road Warrior, to be fighting others over dwindling stores of gasoline?) — you’ll be mostly hoofing it everywhere you go and running will get you there faster.

The Native Americans experienced another kind of apocalypse when Europeans came and kept on coming; bringing with them disease epidemics, genocidal slaughter, and constant terrorism. When horses weren’t available, all that the natives had to rely on was their own bodies. While on foot crossing arid lands and often without water, the freedom fighter Geronimo and his fellow warriors were able to outpace the cavalry of colonial oppressors, defying what Westerners thought was physically possible. He explained that, “I only trust my legs. They’re my only friends.” Don’t knock such praise of legs. The one and only time we were a victim of a violent crime, a mugging, we resorted to running away. He who runs away lives to see another day. It’s a highly recommended solution to almost any problem — try it sometime.

If all else fails, you are still ahead of the game as long as you have your legs, and lung capacity helps. Without civilization to take care of you, once your ability to walk and run is gone, you’re screwed! You don’t necessarily even have to always be the fastest runner, either. Just fast enough. This is emphasized by an old joke. In the movie The Imitation Game, the character Alan Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) tells one version of it: There are two people in a wood, and they run into a bear. The first person gets down on his knees to pray; the second person starts lacing up his boots. The first person asks the second person, ‘My dear friend, what are you doing? You can’t outrun a bear. To which the second person responds, ‘I don’t have to. I only have to outrun you.'” Such wise words!

The naysayers will complain. They’ll say, But you can’t outrun everything. Even with the best cardio, few people survive in near total apocalypse or whatever. Besides, we’re all going to die anyway. Why get stressed out about it? Maybe we should just relax, take it easy, and accept an early death. Heck, who wants to survive in an apocalypse, anyway? You might as well get taken out earlier than to live through a horrific shit-show of suffering and death, right? That is one response and we aren’t here to judge. Indeed, that’s a fair point to make. Not everything is about mere survival.

That is the thing. Running doesn’t have to be always about running from death. Sometimes, it can mean the exact opposite; running right into the face of almost certain demise. In the infamous failed Picket’s Charge of the American Civil War, more than half of the Confederate soldiers died and most of the rest eventually were forced into retreat. Only a few made it across the field of slaughter. One such individual, the only survivor of those he fought with, was kindly helped over the stone wall by the enemy Union soldiers. So, he survived the field of battle only to become a prisoner of war, but his act was still heroic of sorts, if war is almost always meaningless. We should give credit to such an accomplishment. He must’ve had good cardio, one assumes.

It’s not even about necessarily making it across the enemy’s lines, as an heroic achievement against all odds. If you can simply make further than anyone else, it remains a small victory — there is some glory in that, just to see how far you can go before being mowed down. That is the ending to Gallipoli, a movie about World War I. Two friends, both competitive runners, join the military; but only one of them ends up on the frontline. The other guy is trying to get a message back to the commanding officer to stop the attack, while his friend is waiting to be sent over the top. The message comes too late and so, in following orders, he and his fellow soldiers enter no man’s land. He sprints at full speed, until he takes machine fire to the chest. The point is he got further than anyone else. He presumably would’ve died as one of the fastest sprinting casualties in the whole war. That is something.

We don’t have to go to such dark places, though. Running is even more wonderful in relation to celebration of victory. Take the famous example of Pheidippides. When the Greeks defeated the Persians in battle at the town of Marathon, he ran all of the way to Athens, 25 miles away, so as to deliver the message of victory; that was after having already run 150 miles to Sparta, to rally support, and back again in the prior days. Then he collapsed from exhaustion and died on the spot. But, hey, sometimes one gets carried away with the excitement. Now he shall be remembered for all time. Not bad for a simple messenger, although to be a military messenger in the ancient Greek world was to be a member of an elite corps (Dean Karnazes, The Real Pheidippides Story).

Running, like sports in general, has been a way for individuals, in particular the lowly, to challenge and prove themselves; often when few other opportunities are available. That is seen with Alan Sillitoes’ book The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1959), later adapted to a movie (1962), and still later to inspire an Iron Maiden song (2012). In the story, the protagonist, after being imprisoned, finds a love of running — he uses it as a way of self-determination and defiance. Death doesn’t always have to occur to attain personal greatness. Generally speaking, most of us want to live as long as we can and good aerobic fitness will help in that regard. There are many reasons to go for a run, jog, and spring, or go on a marathon

Whether escaping zombies or facing a storm of bullets or locked away in prison, take it like a man (or a woman) while on your feet. Better yet, run simply as an expression of being human, for the joy of it. That seems like a good philosophy of life. Be as healthy as you can, until the bitter end or, if possible, until the happy end. The average hunter-gatherer doesn’t reach their physical peak of running ability until their 40s and 50s, yet many modern urbanites these days begin experiencing major health decline by their 30s (Millennials Are Hitting Old Age In Their Thirties). One is better off having a long healthspan, to whatever age, than to have a long lifespan in a state of disease, disability, and decline. Just keep active for as long as you can. Death really is nothing more than the final act of no longer moving.

5 thoughts on “Homo Cursus, the Running Ape

  1. One hears and reads about the advice to walk a certain distance or number of steps each day to maintain ‘health’, but it is never explained. One explanation, perhaps the major one, is that the lower leg muscles–primarily the gastrocnemius– are the pumps, the ‘heart’, for the lymphatic system. The lymphatic network is as large and as important as the venous blood network and roughly parallels it in the body.

    (WIkipedia): …the lymphatic system is and open system. The human circulatory system processes an average of 20 litres of blood per day through capillary filtration, which removes plasma from the blood. Roughly 17 litres of the filtered blood is reabsorbed directly into the blood vessels, while the remaining three litres are left in the interstitial fluid. One of the main functions of the lymphatic system is to provide an accessory return route to the blood for the surplus three litres…The other main function is that of immune defense. Lymph is very similar to blood plasma, in that it contains waste products and cellular debris, together with bacteria and proteins ..”

    Simply put, the lymphatic system removes the waste products from the body and dumps them into the venous blood system for eventual elimination. But it has no heart as does the blood circulatory system. Running and walking provides the main pumping mechanism for the circulation of the lymphatic system. Some people get lymphatic massage when their lymphatic system does not circulate properly. So, if you do not walk, you are allowing yourself to slowly poison yourself. (The latter is my admonition).

    • Yeah, you’ve brought that up before; and it’s good info, if rarely known — in fact, you are the only person who has ever mentioned it to us before. We have a post, partly written, about the topic that may or may not be finished one day; as part of a massive backlog of drafts. But that kind of info doesn’t quite fit into the mood of this piece. We were avoiding technical details and, instead, focusing more on the philosophical; and also trying to keep the mood light and amusing. But we are always fond of relevant knowledge added to the comments section.

      We really should finish that post of ours, at some point. Research shows that almost any exercise benefits health. Both walking and running have been the specific focus of many studies. Getting off your butt every hour to take even a casual walk will benefit your health more than strenuously working out for an hour after sitting on your butt all day. Even while fasting, it’s recommended that one should continue doing light exercises, including going for walks. Maybe a reason is that, in fasting, the body tries to eliminate toxins. For similar reasons, it’s probably wise to get up to move around even when sick.

    • If we were to get into the scientific details, as we’ve done in many other posts, exercise has diverse benefits. There is a ton of research that has determined the precise results and causal mechanisms.

      It’s not only aerobic fitness, cardiovascular health, and muscle building. As you explain, it does assist the lymphatic system and that overlaps with the immune system. Sweating, along with fat-burning on a very low-carb diet (since toxins are stored in fat cells), also assists the lymphatic system in detoxification.

      Exercise, if done intensely and/or long enough, also promotes ketosis and autophagy; even on a higher carb diet, once the glucose is burned off and the body switches to fat-burning. We used to go for long jogs when high-carb and we noticed our appetite disappearing afterward, probably an indicator of being in ketosis.

      Exercise also improves mood, as noted in this post; something also seen with ketosis in general (e.g., nutritional ketosis). Related to that, it offers neuroprotection and cognitive benefits, such as processes involving memory and learning; possibly by way of hippocampal neurogenesis. That is to say exercise helps grow new brain cells.

      The body is complex and all of the systems are integrated. We are physical beings, after all. It should be unsurprising that physical activity would have such widespread biological effects. Even when we are sitting still, our bodies continue moving — our lungs breathe, our heart pumps, the blood and lymph flows, the electron transport pathway does its thing, cells respirate, and on and on. It’s that physical activity helps with many of these processes.

    • There is a great example of the health benefits of merely walking. There is a guy we know who has been an alcoholic and pot smoker for decades, since he was in high school. He shows some neurocognitive impairment from it. And along with a hyper-processed and high-carb standard American diet, he is surely deficient in numerous nutrients.

      Yet he typically walks for hours every day, no matter the time of year; with that being his only source of exercise. He is surprisingly healthy, all considering; and so far appears to have had no major health issues, other than probably liver damage and an occasional injury from falling while drunk.

      One might not be able to outrun or outwalk a bad diet and bad lifestyle, but it sure does help tremendously. That might especially be true for an alcoholic, since the improving lymph flow will improve detoxification. Plus, walking outdoors, as long as their is sufficient cholesterol in the diet, will increase vitamin D production.

    • https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-022-02012-w

      “The association between physical activity and human disease has not been examined using commercial devices linked to electronic health records. Using the electronic health records data from the All of Us Research Program, we show that step count volumes as captured by participants’ own Fitbit devices were associated with risk of chronic disease across the entire human phenome. Of the 6,042 participants included in the study, 73% were female, 84% were white and 71% had a college degree, and participants had a median age of 56.7 (interquartile range 41.5–67.6) years and body mass index of 28.1 (24.3–32.9) kg m–2. Participants walked a median of 7,731.3 (5,866.8–9,826.8) steps per day over the median activity monitoring period of 4.0 (2.2–5.6) years with a total of 5.9 million person-days of monitoring. The relationship between steps per day and incident disease was inverse and linear for obesity (n = 368), sleep apnea (n = 348), gastroesophageal reflux disease (n = 432) and major depressive disorder (n = 467), with values above 8,200 daily steps associated with protection from incident disease. The relationships with incident diabetes (n = 156) and hypertension (n = 482) were nonlinear with no further risk reduction above 8,000–9,000 steps. Although validation in a more diverse sample is needed, these findings provide a real-world evidence-base for clinical guidance regarding activity levels that are necessary to reduce disease risk.”

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