[at-l] The Evolution Of The Runner's High: NYT April 25, 2012
sloetoe at yahoo.com
Thu Apr 26 08:49:29 CDT 2012
Ferrets don’t often figure in studies of exercise, perhaps because they don’t exercise much. They slink like fog through tunnels, sprint briefly over open ground and spend much of their time sleeping. They are, in biological terms, what’s called a noncursorial species, meaning that they are reluctant and lousy distance runners.
Which is why they were ideal subjects for a new experiment conducted at the University of Arizona in Tucson looking at whether humans and other species evolved to like running.
Many anthropologists and distance runners believe that running guided the evolution of early humans. We ran in search of dinner and away from predators.
But running is costly, metabolically. It incinerates energy. It can also cause injury. A twisted ankle would have removed your typical early human from the gene pool.
So why did our ancestors continue to run over the millennia “and not evolve other strategies for survival?” asks David A. Raichlen, a professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona, who led the study, which was published in The Journal of Experimental Biology. “We wondered if natural selection might have used neurobiological mechanisms to encourage exercise activity,” he continues.
Specifically, he and his colleagues became interested in the evolutionary role of the endocannabinoid system. As the name suggests, endocannabinoids are chemicals that, like cannabis in marijuana, alter and lighten moods. But the body produces endocannabinoids naturally. In other studies, endocannabinoid levels have been shown to increase after prolonged running and cycling, leading many scientists to conclude that endocannabinoids help to create runner’s high.
But Dr. Raichlen wondered if the endocannabinoids had had a more momentous role in the development of mankind as a whole. Had we continued to run, as a species, not because we had to run, but because we had become hard-wired to like it?
To test that idea, Dr. Raichlen and his colleagues decided to compare the endocannabinoid response to running in species that both do and do not historically run — to see, in other words, which animals experience a runner’s high.
Ferrets were chosen to represent the nonrunners (mostly because, Dr. Raichlen says, “we could adopt them out into the community afterward,” unlike other local noncursorial animals like possums and skunks).
Humans and dogs became the designated cursorial, or distance running, species. The scientists recruited 10 local recreational runners and 8 dogs of various breeds.
They then took blood samples from all of the people and animals and, after some preliminary, gentle training (“using positive reinforcement,” Dr. Raichlen says), had each person or animal run on a treadmill for 30 minutes at a pace equivalent to about 70 percent of his, her or its maximum heart rate.
On a separate day, the people and dogs walked for 30 minutes on the treadmill, while the ferrets, which had found walking on the treadmill difficult to master, rested for 30 minutes in their cages.
The scientists drew blood after each session. They checked all of the samples for endocannabinoids.
It turned out that, as expected, the humans had shown significantly increased levels of endocannabinoids after running. So had the dogs, suggesting, for the first time, that they, too, experience a runner’s high.
But neither species had developed increased endocannabinoid levels after walking.
And the ferrets didn’t show higher endocannabinoid levels after either session. They gained, it seems, no neurobiological pleasure from running.
What these findings suggest, besides that ferrets will not make ideal training partners for marathon runners, is, Dr. Raichlen says, that “a reward response” to aerobic activity “appears to be part of our evolutionary history.”
Liking to run, it seems, may have helped to make humans what they are.
So why then, in actual practice, do so few humans today run? (Dogs are another matter; mine has to be constrained from tearing off and lolloping for miles.)
“That’s the million dollar question,” Dr. Raichlen says. “It appears from our study that we have the evolutionary drive” to exercise. But modern man has learned to ignore it.
Of course, there are limitations to the study and what it can tell us about why so many of us tend not to move much. The human volunteers were all fit, for one thing, unlike most modern humans. They may have been uniquely motivated to stay active from an early age and may not be representative of your typical human, present or past.
It’s also a bit difficult to draw conclusions based on comparisons between people and ferrets. “Ferrets are weird,” says David Linden, a professor of neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and author of “The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning and Gambling Feel So Good.” “They live in burrows and sleep 18 hours a day.”
Still, the new study is provocative. “Our results are very preliminary,” Dr. Raichlen says. “But if they have a message, it’s that our evolutionary history appears to have included this kind of endurance activity and rewarded it. And as a result, we continue to have a biological imperative” to move.
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