No one is questioning whether leaving the couch to go for a walk or a run would do you some good — accelerating your heart rate, burning some calories, maybe even adding a few years to your life.
But consider this: All that exercise may be a selfish act — a shortsighted game of checkers in an evolutionary chess match that’s been going on for eons. And by not stepping off the sofa, you may have taken the first step toward saving the species.
Finally, there is a study that, if read in just the right way, can lend credence to wasting away a Sunday (or Monday, or Tuesday) afternoon. Think of it as a not-entirely-airtight rebuttal to the American Heart Association, the NFL, to Michelle Obama and your smartwatch’s gentle but judgmental reminder that you’ve taken only nine steps in the last hour.
There is proof in the form of a scientific paper, whose authors may be typing out an angry email to The Washington Post at this very moment.
An article in the Journal of Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences this month has found evidence that species that exert less energy on average have a better shot at making another rotation around the circle of life.
CrossFit-averse people everywhere can send thank-you notes to Luke Strotz, a postdoctoral researcher at Kansas University’s Biodiversity Institute, who spent years studying the fossils of mollusks and bivalves.
His most recent study shows that there’s a significant connection between a low basal metabolic rate (that’s the amount of energy an organism expends while at rest) and a species’ evolutionary endurance. The paper, he said, gives us more insight into what causes species to go extinct.
“It’s not a be-all and end-all of extinction; that’s not the case,” Strotz told the Lawrence, Kansas, Journal-World. “But what this study does for the first time is show that metabolism and physiology is a component of extinction, and no one has done that before. No one has shown that previously.”
His co-author, Bruce Lieberman, an ecology and biology professor, dubbed it “survival of the sluggish.
“Maybe in the long term the best evolutionary strategy for animals is to be lassitudinous and sluggish — the lower the metabolic rate, the more likely the species you belong to will survive,” Lieberman said. “Instead of ‘survival of the fittest,’ maybe a better metaphor for the history of life is ‘survival of the laziest’ or at least ‘survival of the sluggish.’”
The researchers studied the fossils of bivalves and gastropods in the Atlantic Ocean.
The animals in the study have shells, which have a better chance of weathering the passage of time. And they’ve already been heavily scrutinized and catalogued by scientists across North America.
Strotz and his colleagues compiled a database of some 46,000 specimens from nearly 300 species and found that higher basal metabolic rates “were a reliable predictor of extinction likelihood.”
The reasons remain a mystery. Maybe animals developed a high metabolic rate because they had a high mortality rate — and needed to mature quickly and reproduce young before they died from predation, he hypothesized.
Strotz called this the “live fast, die young” theory. He said more research is necessary, including on other species.
There are benefits from Strotz’s study that extend beyond a desire to never know what, exactly, a burpee is.
Strotz says his research —and similar studies — can help conservationists understand which animals are the most likely to go extinct due to climate change.
“This might be the canary in the coal mine for us,” he said. “We can say this thing is more predisposed to going extinct … we can put our conservation efforts here.”
There are, of course, some caveats one should know before basing a lifetime of sloth on one tangentially applicable scientific study.
Full transparency: Bivalves and gastropods are not human. They are invertebrates that mostly live in the ocean, and in a different section of kingdom animalia altogether.
Netflix has never asked a mollusk: “Are you still watching?”
And there are other variables in the extinction equation, which can also be influenced by bad luck (see: giant comets, habitat loss, plague).
Also, Strotz said, he’s talking about the average metabolism of a species, not an individual.
“We’re talking about a species level, not an individual level. I’ve had to tell many people that I can’t be the champion of the couch potato.”
In the past few days, he’s seen articles about his work circulating across the world, along with pictures of slacker stereotypes such as Homer Simpson and “the Dude” from “The Big Lebowski.”
It was not exactly what he was going for when he spent months measuring thousands of mollusk and bivalve shells and pondering extinction.
Despite his study being the first thing that comes up when someone searches Google for “lazy mollusk,” Strotz says he’s happy that he’s been able to get a lot of sedentary people focused intently on the bigger questions about existence on Earth.
“Paleontology extends beyond ‘here is the newest, biggest dinosaur,’” he said. “We’re beginning to answer the big-picture questions about the mysteries of life.”