Introducing the Hazda…

How much physical activity do you get on an average day? If you’re like many Americans, you spend a whole lot of time sitting. Maybe you aim to get the 150 minutes of exercise per week (that about 21 minutes per day) recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human services… but maybe some weeks are more successful than others. In general, people in this country do not move around nearly enough.

Our bodies are built to move, so all of this sedentary behavior (office jobs, commuting, internet scrolling, Netflix, and generally vegging out) is extremely damaging to human health. Inactivity is one of the primary reasons that heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. According to the Heart Foundation, someone in this country dies of a heart attack every 34 seconds. Poor diet is also a major player in this epidemic, but inactivity is driving it as well.

There is no longer any question that increased physical activity is a bona-fide treatment for heart disease and many other chronic diseases as well. There is convincing evidence that the rates of chronic diseases can be reduced by up to 80% without drugs, simply using diet, lifestyle and physical activity as medicine.

A compelling example of this comes in the form of a new study, performed by researchers at the University of Arizona and published in the American Journal of Human Biology. Researchers looked at the physical activity and cardiovascular health of the Hazda tribe of north-central Tanzania. The Hazda are one of the last remaining groups of hunter-gatherers in the world. They are a nomadic people, and as part of their tradition, men go out hunting on foot in the morning, while women gather berries, root vegetables, and fruits for meals. They still live in much the same way that all humans lived until about 12,000 years ago.

Let’s put it this way… the Hazda have no problem meeting the activity recommendations of the US Department of Health and Human Services. They get more exercise in a single day than many Americans get in an entire week. While many Americans struggle to meet the 150 minute-per-week mark, the Hazda get about 75 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical exercise each day… they meet the US weekly recommendation in just two days. This may seem like a lot of movement, but it’s exactly what our bodies were designed to do.

Not surprisingly, through their study, University of Arizona researchers found that the Hazda population has exceedingly low rates of heart disease. According to anthropologist David Raichlen:

“They have very low levels of hypertension. In the U.S., the majority of our population over the age of 60 has hypertension. In the Hadza, it’s 20 to 25 percent, and in terms of blood lipid levels, there’s virtually no evidence that the Hadza people have any kind of blood lipid levels that would put them at risk for cardiovascular disease.”

While diet certainly plays an important role in this low risk of heart disease (the Hazda aren’t chowing down on processed foods), their high levels of physical activity also play an important role. We Americans should take an important lesson from this, if we don’t want heart disease to come knocking at our door.

As I always tell my patients, movement really is medicine, and a vitally important one at that. It may not be practical in our daily lives to get quite as much physical activity as the Hazda get, however, we can at least make a commitment to walking for 30 to 45 minutes each day. The key is to make walking a routine, just like brushing your teeth (you wouldn’t miss a day of brushing, would you?).

Daily physical activity is a prescription that I highly recommend you take every day, no matter what. Even though it’s gotten extremely cold in my hometown recently, that hasn’t stopped me… I’m out there walking each and every day. There is no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing. So, bundle up, get outside, and get walking: for the sake of your heart and your health.

– Dr. Joshua Levitt