Do animals exercise? © Getty Images

Do animals exercise?

Published: 12th September, 2021 at 11:00
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The strange science of why you never see animals working out – and it’s not because they don’t have gym memberships.

Most animals are physically active. They fly, walk, swim and slither to discover food, flee predators and find mates, but exercise is more than this. It’s any form of voluntary physical activity that goes beyond this baseline level. Often, there’s a motivational component. Humans, for example, exercise to prepare for feats of endurance, stave off disease or impress a partner. Some even say they enjoy it.


With non-human animals, it’s harder to ascribe intent, making the question of ‘do animals exercise?’ a tricky area of research. It’s difficult to know whether a behaviour is voluntary or something that occurs as a necessary part of survival.

Take play. Wolf cubs wrestle, chase and ambush their littermates, which leads to better hunting and fighting skills. But is it exercise? The jury is out.

I once had a hamster who ran so furiously on his wheel, he clocked up more revolutions than Che Guevara. Brain chemistry experiments show that domestic hamsters derive pleasure from the practice, so when he died at the wheel, at least he was happy.

Annoyingly, some animals don’t even need to exercise to get fit. Before they migrate, barnacle geese develop stronger hearts and bigger flight muscles just by sitting around eating. It’s thought an environmental cue triggers the change, so if someone ever berates you for being a couch potato, just tell them you’re channelling your inner goose.

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Helen Pilcher
Helen PilcherScience writer, presenter and performer.

Helen Pilcher is a tea-drinking, biscuit-nibbling science and comedy writer, with a PhD in cell biology.


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