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The Heart Wants What It Wants

Updated: Mar 7, 2021

Comparisons of human and nonhuman primate hearts have led to some notable discoveries that show how we were made for long-distance, aerobic activities.


Throughout human evolution, the biological makeup of us and our primate cousins diverged for different purposes. Scientists believed that this divide was permanently embedded in each of us, but a recent Harvard study proved otherwise.

Dr. Aaron Baggish, a Harvard cardiologist, and Daniel Lieberman, a Harvard evolutionary biologist, partnered up on the journey to understand more about our and our cousin species' hearts.

The study began with a screening of different students at Harvard. Baggish and his team of researchers scanned the scope of the student body from young, male distance runners to football players. They also screened the hearts of subsistence farmers in Mexico as well as a wide range of young, sedentary men in the Boston area.

It was no question that the hearts of professional athletes would differ from those who were not active at all, but it came to Baggish's attention that this difference may be quite helpful in explaining the connection between humans and their nonhuman counterparts.

From the University of British Columbia, exercise physiologist Robert Shave simultaneously screened the hearts of several gorillas and chimpanzees in Africa. Once the two scannings were completed, Baggish and Shave compared results and came to an astounding realization.

It appeared that chimpanzees and gorillas had much thicker heart walls. These walls could withstand short bursts of pressure that occurred during sudden activities such as climbing up a tree.

The hearts of runners and the subsistence farmers, however, had thinner heart walls. Their hearts were longer and more narrow to accommodate the constant activity they underwent, which gave them a springier heart structure that maintained lower blood pressure.

Contrarily, the hearts of football players at Harvard notably had thickened chamber walls like gorillas and chimps. Their training consisted of weightlifting rather than constant, moderate activity, so this structure made sense. It was the sedentary Bostonian men, however, who concerned Baggish and Shave. These men, who did not do any form of exercise, also had thickened hearts.

This close comparison elucidated where human hearts evolved from throughout the years and proved that they were built to withstand lengthened, aerobic activity that maintained their healthy structure. Additionally, the study indicated that once these activities were abandoned, the human heart reverted to its primitive form that could lead to future health problems.

Such a conclusion fascinated Baggish and Shave as this discovery shed light on the imminent dangers of sedentary lifestyles that many individuals are not aware of.

Heart problems are typically associated with those of older age, but according to this recent study, the damage can begin right away without warning.

So, next time, plan on giving your heart the care it needs to stay healthy.

A little exercise every day may truly benefit you in the future, and the journey could start right now with a nice walk outside.

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