Do I benefit more from outdoor exercise?


An immigration officer advised me the other day, after learning that Pugu Hills Nature Centre also stimulates its guests to get involved in physical exercise either through hiking, swimming or even running, that in that case we would need a Hall for fitness equipment and exercise. Because the man looked quite fit and most probably not planning to visit a Gym soon, I decided not to go into a discussion regarding the pros and cons of indoor and outdoor fitness exercises in Dar es Salaam.

The advice of the officer may reflect a general believe that the sophisticated fitness equipment in the fitness Gym have added value and may even make your body healthier than healthy. Impulsively I favour outdoor exercise in Nature and assume it is by far superior to the fitness regime in an air-conditioned Gym. The question is: can I prove it?


I understand that for a hot and boiling Dar es Salaam, the air-conditioned Gym close to the residencies of the majority of trimmers, is an asset in a town with dusty and dangerous road sides and beaches visited by thugs. It is also better to do some regular exercise in the less healthy enclosure of the sports school than not at all, while Nature may be too far (Kigamboni, Pugu) or risky (Beach). A similar advice is provided for outdoor runners in urban environments. In a 2004 review of pollution studies worldwide conducted by the University of Brisbane, Australia, found that during exercise, low concentrations of pollutants caused lung damage similar to that caused by high concentrations in people not working out while athletes take in typically 10 to 20 times more air than sedentary people do.  Experts hurry to say that people should not stop exercising outdoors. Rather, they suggested that exercisers should keep their distance from exhaust-spewing cars and check air- quality forecasts before venturing out. As long as the air quality in the gym and backstreets of Dar es Salaam are not measured an advise for the best fitness exercise environment will be difficult to get. Exercising far from the city centre will be most advisable but no option for weekly fitness routines.

And how many gym visitors manage to stick to the routine and have the discipline to continue for the rest of their lifes, or at least long enough to experience the benefits of the treadmill? Looking at the health statistics it seems that only a small minority, a “special breed” of sport addicts are able to stick to the discipline of at least 3 days of exercise every week. What about us, the more regular types? Is there any hope for a healthy life, in the absence of the time, priority and discipline to expose our bodies to the daily physical demands of the hunter and gatherer?

My personal problem with fitness exercises like running (running is for me as a freelancer the most convenient option), is the boredom of running loops from my house (driving somewhere is completely unthinkable considering time required). After three to four times , it becomes hard to get motivated for an other round along the same route, but still very much more exiting than on the treadmill in the house or at the Gym, which I manage so far an average of say two times a year.

There were times that I was physically involved in building construction, during those periods I did not need fitness exercises nor did I have much energy left for it. The last conclusion sounds like the remark in the article about the hunter and gatherer (whose type of lifestyle, is what our body has been perfected for, during 84,000 generations1 of natural selection), that running for recreation is not an activity our hunter and gatherer ancestors would be interested in. Running behind a potential meal to be hunted down because you are hungry, makes sense and our instincts will instruct us to run. Running loops in park is according to our instincts a wasteful spilling of energy which needs to be preserved for useful activities like hunting for food or “running for your life”.

Now that “we” managed to live a sedentary life (I am referring to the new Digital Age generation who manages to get their daily meals by sitting still for endless hours behind a desk and computer) we can be congratulated for our evolutionary success in minimising the energy we need to burn for obtaining our daily requirement of food intake. Our success story started with the hunter and gatherer who also unconsciously looks for “the path of least resistance”. The humans which need less energy to find their food will most probably outsmart and have better chance of surviving than those who need all the energy they have just for satisfying their daily food intake.

The “Digital Age” (2 generations1 old) has produced some of the most successful hunter and gatherers, ever - considering the minimal use of the energy they require for obtaining the necessary daily food. It will be hard to imagine for an exhausted hunter and gatherer after running behind a foul that his descendant can eat as many chickens he can digest by just moving his fingers over a keyboard and could even be served (catering) without getting out of his/her chair.
The backside of the success story of the “sedentary hunter and gatherer”, is that our inclination for the path of least resistance may prove deadly in the long run. Although growing public health threats like obesity and depression can have many and complex causes, I believe it is now generally accepted that lack of physical exercise is among one of the major reasons of humans developing health problems. We have condemned our running machines to a sedentary lifestyle. And the most dangerous aspect, mentally we are happy with it. It seems that our mental drive for the path of least resistance is not affected at all by our physical necessity to Be As Physically Active As A Hunter and Gatherer Can Be.

The question remains now if evolution will get enough time to do its job and transform our “running machine” bodies into some “computer loving sloth”. The expression for our future physics already exists in “to sloth in front of the TV”, the ultimate dream of the “hunter and gatherer” accumulating more food than we can eat with less and less energy expenditure.


According to a study the successful “Homo Sapiens Bradypodidae” (sloth like human) may even live longer than the Homo Sapiens.

The loss of Nature and Biodiversity which we fail to stop, will not bother the super energy saving Human Sloth any longer, while at that stage we are not made to move far away from our house or vehicle, with an average speed of 3m/min.

The remaining problem is that it may take some 100 years before we get rid of the need for fitness exercises and become a super fit slothing sloth, this is under the assumption that we have some major genetic engineering breakthroughs in the coming decades to help evolution to speed up the transformation of the “hunter and gatherer” running machine to a less exercise demanding “human Sloth”. Our and some future generations who will not yet benefit from this rebuild will still need to fight boredom and their instincts and get motivated for the 3-weekly exercise routines.

My solution is “to get interested in Nature or even in the loss of Nature” and go there to find out.

Nature is so complex that it will never be boring until we fully understand it. In addition to hikes and climbs in Nature, working in Nature like in the garden adds exercise for those body parts which do not benefit much from hiking or running, through lifting, digging, pulling and pushing all using additional muscles. Although not yet very popular among Tanzanians but an alternative mode of exercise is walking the dog (as long as it is on the leash and by the way not allowed inside the Pugu Forest Reserve)

The comparison between the pros and cons of outdoor and indoor exercises is a personal matter those of us who are able to stick to the weekly routine of the Gym and manage to vary their fitness training in a way which reflects the physical demands of the hunter and gatherer, should stick to their indoor routine. Disadvantages of indoor exercises in colder climates like lack of Vitamin D (Sunshine) and lack of fresh air are less relevant for Dar es Salaam.

For those who cannot afford or get inspired by the regular training regime of the Gym, the outdoor option is the only choice. Either outdoor (team) sports, swimming, hiking but also gardening are urban solutions. A shamba outside Dar, safe beaches and the few remaining hiking opportunities around Dar es Salaam come into the picture when it is clear to you that you will not achieve the discipline required for a minimum of urban exercising.

After this being said, I am now switching off my computer and am out for a hike!


1 The figures provided above are from a scientific publication with instructions for regaining our natural fitness developed by our ancestors of which I found two versions on the internet. One version of “Organic Fitness: Physical activity consistent with our Hunter-Gatherer Heritage” by James H. O’Keefe, MD; Robert Vogel, MD; Carl J. Lavie, MD; Loren Cordain, includes the need for sex and dance to achieve the healthy body and mind of the hunter and gatherer (you can download version 1 here) while a shorter version of the same article excluded the need for sex and dance (you can download version 2 here).