Most of us believe that our big brain is what sets humans apart from other species. And that’s what anthropologists thought for decades. All the fossils of our hominid ancestors indicated larger brains.
But everything changed in 1974.
That’s when the fossilized skeleton of a female human ancestor was unearthed in Ethiopia. Scientists called the specimen “Lucy.”
Her remains were 3.2 million years old. She was the oldest hominid ever found.
Lucy belonged to the species Australopithecus afarensis. Just like us, she walked on two legs.
But when scientists analyzed her skull, they were surprised to discover that Lucy had a small brain. It was more apelike than human.
This showed that what set apart our earliest ancestors from the apes was not their brains, but their legs.
Anthropologists now believe that walking on two legs is what triggered the evolution of our more powerful brains.
When early hominids started walking on two legs, it freed their hands. That allowed the production and use of tools for hunting, which meant more meat and a higher protein diet. This gave them the fuel they needed to develop bigger brains.
After tools became important to hunting and food preparation, a bigger brain became a survival advantage. Being smarter meant being able to devise better tools.
We Were Born to Walk
Professor Neil Alexander of the University of Leeds was a pioneer in the study of biomechanics. This is the science of how living things move. He noted that humans are the only mammals who walk on two legs (some apes do it for short periods of time).  
“Walking,” he said, “is the exercise man is naturally meant to do.”
The earliest doctors recognized this.
Hippocrates (460-370 BC), the Greek physician considered the “Father of Western Medicine,” famously said, “Walking is the best medicine.”
In fact, there was a time when walking was a standard medical treatment.
Dr. Eva M. Selhub is an instructor at Harvard Medical School. In her 2012 book Your Brain on Nature, she notes that health resorts and “sanitariums” sprang up in newly urbanized America during the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s.
There, doctors would treat patients with long nature walks. They saw walking as an antidote to sedentary city living.
But walking suddenly fell out of favor in the in the early 20th century. That’s when new medical discoveries spurred doctors to put a premium on treatments that could be tested in a lab. This typically meant drugs, Dr. Selhub said.
Today we walk less than ever. The average American takes 4,774 steps a day, according to a 2017 study at Stanford University.
This may sound like a lot. But our bodies evolved to walk far more.
Scientists believe our Paleo ancestors walked about 16,000 to 22,000 steps a day.
At the same time, we’ve reduced the amount we walk, the incidence of fitness-related diseases has skyrocketed. Researchers have found that walking prevents many of the most serious health conditions:
Obesity: A 2015 study by the London School of Economics followed about 100,000 subjects. It found that people who walked for more than 30 minutes a day had smaller waists than those who regularly engaged in sports and other forms of exercise. It concluded that walking prevents obesity better than any other form of exercise.
Heart disease: was a 2008 University College London meta-analysis that looked at 18 high-quality studies of walking.
It included 459,833 participants, all of whom were free of heart disease when the investigations began. They were tracked for an average of 11 years, during which time cardiovascular events were recorded. Regular walking was found to reduce the risk of a heart attack by 31% and stroke by 27%.
Cancer: A 2014 UK study found that walking a mile a day reduces the chances of dying of any type of cancer by 40%.
Alzheimer’s: A study from the University of Virginia found that walking a quarter mile a day cut in half the incidence of Alzheimer’s among men 71 and older.
Immunity: A study of 1,000 people found that those who walked at least 20 minutes day, five days a week, took almost the half the sick days of people who rarely walked.
The Best Way to Walk
Any kind of walking is good for you. But research shows one approach may be the best.
In a study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, scientists looked at 30 volunteers. They had them walk for different lengths of time throughout the day.
At the beginning and end of each day, researchers checked the levels of stress hormones in the participants. And they asked them to rate their mood, energy, and appetite.
More frequent short walks actually made people feel better than one long walk. On the day they took short walks, participants reported they were happier, felt less tired, and had fewer food cravings.
On the day participants took a long morning walk, they felt energized at the start of the day. But after lunch, fatigue set in. On the short walk day, their energy levels actually increased throughout the day.
Try this simple strategy: Set the alarm on your cell phone to go off every hour. When you hear it, get up and walk for five minutes. You may find that you’re healthier, happier, and more productive.
When you walk, you’re tapping into a powerful ancient force. It not only helps you lose weight and cuts your risk for a wide range of serious diseases… It makes you feel fundamentally right.
And that’s because walking, many thousands of years ago, is what made you human.
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