While many in the fitness industry bemoan the sedentary lifestyle which predominates in industrialized nations around the world, as it turns out, even the most active hunter-gatherer ways of life don’t actually burn more calories.
Evolutionary anthropologist and Duke professor Herman Pontzer spent 10 years studying the metabolisms of diverse sets of people around the world, from ultra-marathon runners to average office workers; as well as members of the Hadza tribe in Tanzania, who plant no crops and use no electricity.
Instead, they set out each day to hunt animals like zebras or antelope, and to forage and gather berries, fruits and tubers to sustain their people.
While this sounds like the perfect calorie-burning lifestyle, especially when compared with nine-to-fivers sitting in a chair all day, evolutionary biology says otherwise, according to Pontzer.
The Hadza don’t actually burn more energy per day than their sedentary counterparts in Europe, North America and Asia.
Pontzer recently published his findings after coming to the conclusion that, across all populations, total calorie burn rate is pretty much the same.
That’s because every process, big or small, in the human body requires energy in the form of calories. “All of it takes energy,” Pontzer says.
In fact, Pontzer calculated that each beat of the human heart burns about 1/300th of a kilocalorie.
“Our metabolic engines were not crafted by millions of years of evolution to guarantee a beach-ready bikini body,” Pontzer says, adding that instead, human metabolism is designed to cling to every precious calorie it can, and will adapt to any changes in exercise and diet, as many will know all too well from personal experience.
While a person can shock their metabolism with spikes in activity or major calorie restrictions, it will eventually return to a baseline through adaptation to guarantee a baseload power supply for every single thing the body does.
Pontzer is quick to point out that while the Hazda don’t burn more calories than other peoples of the world, their lifestyle does prevent them from developing conditions like heart disease, diabetes and obesity.
Echoing many dieticians around the world, Pontzer reiterates that a person can’t outrun a bad diet, at least not forever, and that exercise alone is insufficient to keep a human healthy.
“At the end of the day, our weight is a matter of calories eaten versus calories burned – and it’s really hard to change the calories we burn!” Pontzer says.
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