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Physical Activity as a Signature of Humanity

This is an excerpt from Introduction to Kinesiology 5th Edition With Web Study Guide by Shirl J. Hoffman & Duane V. Knudson.

Although it is tempting to think of physical activity experience as being inferior to mental activity, such a limited view does not do justice to this important and far-reaching concept or to the integrated nature of the human mind and body. Physical activity draws on aspects of humanity that help define us as the highest order of living creatures on earth. Without this connection, physical activity experience could not work its marvelous effects. Let’s explore how physical activity helps define our humanity and, in turn, how our innately human capacities enable us to develop our physical activity capacity through experience.

Intelligence-Based Physical Activity

First, because humans are big-brained, highly intelligent creatures, our physical activity tends to be rooted in more intricate plans and directed toward more sophisticated goals than is the case with other animals. We use motor plans or mental images as dynamic maps to guide our movements when we perform skills as simple as a standing long jump and as complex as catching a flying disc, piloting an airplane, or performing brain surgery. Other animals, by comparison, entertain relatively simple plans. For example, although a kangaroo has a capacity for cardiovascular endurance that humans can only dream of - hopping in 15- to 20-foot (4.5- to 6-meter) strides at an all-out pace for up to 20 miles (32 kilometers) at a time - it cannot use this capacity to play the rule-bound game of soccer. Similarly, a cheetah can easily outrun a human in a contest in which the goal is simply to run as fast as possible. However, unable to formulate a clear understanding of goals and constraints imposed by rules, a cheetah cannot adapt its extraordinary running skill to the complexities of an Olympic relay race.

Ethically and Aesthetically Based Physical Activity

Second, because humans are essentially spiritual creatures who possess unique moral and aesthetic senses, we can use our movements to express our imagination; our moral reasoning; and deep and complex moods such as joy, wonder, and appreciation of beauty. Indeed, physical activity is integral to rituals that form an important part of our religious and civic lives. This is not to deny that other animals have emotional lives, too. Chimps, for example, can become so depressed when their mothers die that they sometimes die, too (Heltne, 1989). However, although some chimps can use sign language to express emotions and can daub paint on paper, they cannot translate emotions through muscular actions into symbolic works of art or other elaborate expressions of sorrow, joy, or wonder. If thousands of chimpanzees were each given a hammer and chisel, perhaps, by mere chance, one of them might create a recognizable work of art, but never something as profound as Michelangelo’s David or Rodin’s The Thinker. Similarly, wading birds may engage in elaborate mating dances, but the choreography is the product of instinct - not an intentional expression of mood through movement such as, for example, Swan Lake.

Flexibility and Adaptability of Physical Activity

Third, human physical activity is further distinguished from that of other animals by virtue of the unique combinations of movements permitted by human anatomy. At first, this may seem to be an exaggeration. After all, elephants are equipped for performing far more forceful movements than humans are, greyhounds can surpass us in speed, dolphins swim better than we do, and monkeys are more agile. In what ways, then, can we say that humans hold a movement advantage?

The answer lies in the fact that whereas other animals may be endowed with considerable specific talents for movement, humans are the best equipped for performing a wide range of activities. This distinction hinges on two properties of human anatomy. First, with our upright posture and bipedal gait, we are the only animals whose forelimbs have been totally freed from assisting with walking, flying, brachiating (arm swinging), or swimming. The human body has a foot specially constructed to bear weight and give leverage to the leg, a pelvis specifically designed for attaching the strong muscles needed to help maintain bipedal balance, and thighbones that permit long strides in walking. Indeed, our ability to walk on two feet has been described as "the most spectacular physical trait of human beings" (LaBarre, 1963, p. 73).

The second property is the human capacity for dexterity of movement, which is made possible by a unique complex of hands, arms, shoulders, and stereoscopic vision. The human hand possesses a true opposable thumb - a much more beneficial construction than that of the typical primate hand, whose five fingers all operate more or less in the same plane. The human hand arrangement allows us to perform delicate grasping, manipulating, and adjusting movements that are not possible for other animals. However, this is not the only advantage. Our hands are also positioned at the end of a series of long arm bones, which are joined to an amazingly movable shoulder girdle that a dog or cat could only dream of having. (Can you imagine a dog, cat, or horse being able to scratch its back with its forelimb?) That movable shoulder girdle enables us to position our hands through an enormously large range in space. This upper-arm advantage is complemented by a facility for stereoscopic vision (lacking in many animals) that not only gives us advantages in depth perception but also allows us to perform most of our movements within our field of vision.

Ability to Improve Performance Through Planned Experience

The fourth - and perhaps the most significant - distinguishing characteristic of humans is our ability to improve our capacity for physical activity through planned, systematic practice and training. Only humans possess the intelligence to use physical activity in planned, systematic, and scientifically verifiable ways either as a means of achieving physical rehabilitation or as a means of improving their health, performance, or skill. Of course, the cardiorespiratory efficiency of a young lion or eagle improves as its hunting range expands, but the driving force of its activity is hunger and survival, not a systematic conditioning plan to improve the physiological functioning of its body. Some species do teach their young how to hunt and fish, but the methods are relatively primitive and lack the sophistication of human plans.

Learn more about Introduction to Kinesiology, Fifth Edition.