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The Characteristics of Hunter-Gatherer Fitness

Posted By Mark Sisson On February 9, 2011 @ 9:40 am In Barefooting,Fitness,Grok,Lift Heavy Things,Low Level Aerobic Activity,Sprinting | 78 Comments

Dr. Loren Cordain and a few MD colleagues have recently published a paper (PDF [7]) called “Organic Fitness: Physical Activity Consistent with Our Hunter-Gatherer Heritage.” It makes for a great companion piece to Primal Blueprint Fitness [8], and it encapsulates quite nicely the breadth of research into the physical activities of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Read the whole thing. There’s probably nothing really new to you guys already well-versed in this stuff, but it’s good having it all in one space, and it’s good having it from more sources (not just me). If someone ever asks you why you go barefoot, avoid weight machines, squat below parallel [9] (don’t you know it’s bad for your knees!?!), go on hikes for fun without sunscreen, and hate treadmills, you can send along a nice, neat package including the PBF eBook [8] and the Cordain paper. This isn’t a “nyah, nyah, proven right again!” type thing (well, kinda). This is a “buttressing the incoming unavoidable inexorable impossible-to-ignore flood of evidence in favor of listening to evolution in matters of health and fitness” type thing. The times they are a changin’, eh?

Anyway, let’s get to the meaty bits of the paper – to what they call the “fundamental elements of ‘organic exercise,’ which may serve as a template from which to design a fitness strategy for adults living in today’s modern industrialized culture.” I’ve bolded and italicized their words (from a section of which the title of this article is derived) and followed up with my commentary:

1. A large amount background daily, light-to-moderate activity such as walking was required. Although the distances covered would have varied widely according to hunting and foraging routines, cultures, weather, seasons, ages, etc., most estimates indicate that the average daily distances covered were in the range of 6 to 16 km.

Or in other words, Move Frequently at a Slow Pace [10]. Note that “6 to 16 km” per day is a fairly big range, and it’s the ideal – if you’re trying to perfectly emulate hunter-gatherer activity. This is neither necessarily optimum nor possible for most people. Now, If I could, I’d go on a two-hour leisurely [11] paced hike through nature every single day, but I can’t, and so I don’t. I also don’t fret about it. If you get three to five hours (or more) of slow moving walking or hiking each week, you’re doing things right.

2. Hard days were typically followed by an easier day, but every day a variety of physical activities had to be accomplished just to provide for the basic human needs. The hunter-gatherers’ daily energy expenditures for physical activity typically were at least 800 to 1200 kcal or about 3 to 5 times that of modern sedentary individuals.

Vary your workouts and get plenty of rest [12], but stay active every day. Be a generalist, unless profession or dearly held extracurricular activities require specialization. That is, if you’re a high-level athlete or just an extremely passionate one, focus on your sport. Exercise should breed pleasure, after all. Hunter-gatherers were generalists by necessity; they had to be all-around physically capable, so it’s probably an optimal path – health-wise – for us, their descendants, but not if it negatively affects your enjoyment of life.

3. Individuals walked or ran on natural surfaces, such as grass and dirt, and often on uneven ground; our ancient ancestors almost never walked or ran on solid flat rock. The combination of softer natural walking/running surfaces and less biomechanically restrictive shoes is a more evolutionarily congruent strategy to reduce impact loading of the joints.

I’m in agreement with this – ditch the shoes altogether or opt for alternatives that promote natural locomotion – but  “natural surfaces” are probably less important for healthy moving in the grand scheme of things. What’s important is how we land and use our joints and muscles to absorb the impact. If you’re walking or running in species appropriate footwear [13] that promote a healthy footfall [14], you will be more likely to handle the impact of that footfall whether you’re on concrete, a hardwood floor, or a dirt path. I will say that walking or running on uneven ground strewn both with large obstacles that you have to avoid or climb over (rocks, sticks, branches) and with small objects that you perceive underfoot and must subconsciously react to (pebbles, gravel, sharp stickers) is ideal, but if you live in a big city without regular access to the outdoors, what are you gonna do? Nothing? Pick the appropriate footwear (or lack thereof) and you’ll be most of the way there.

4. Life in the wild often called for intermittent bursts of moderate-to-high level intensity exercise with intervening periods of rest and recovery. High-intensity interval training sessions should be performed once or twice per week.

As I often say, make your long, easy workouts longer and easier, and make your short, intense workouts even shorter and more intense. Intensity is key for the best results in fitness, but you’ve gotta rest. Apply a stressful stimulus, allow your body to respond and adapt to that stimulus. It’s extremely simple and intuitive, yet so many get it so wrong. Add sprinting to your weekly routine if you haven’t already. The PBF protocol [8] calls for one dedicated sprint day each week, with WOWs [15] rounding out the weekly HIIT.

5. Cross-training is important and should include exercises focusing on strength (resistive), endurance (aerobic), and flexibility (stretching). Rotation among multiple different forms of exercise develops resilience and multifaceted fitness and reduces the likelihood of overuse injury, boredom, and emotional burnout.

Again, the generalist approach. Competency across a broad range of movement patterns, activity types [15], and energy pathways [16]. Joints should move freely and smoothly, lean mass [17] should be visible and capable, and you shouldn’t get winded ascending a flight of stairs or going for a walk. These things – joint mobility [18] and flexibility, basic physical strength, and adequate aerobic endurance – are valuable and useful to all people, everywhere, regardless of interest in formal exercise or sport.

6. Regular sessions of weight training and other strength-building exercises are essential for optimizing health and fitness. These need to be performed at least 2 or 3 times per week, for at least 20 to 30 minutes per session.

Strength training [19] is the foundation. It helps you build and maintain [20] a powerful, stable base of operations (your body) from which to conduct daily business. I would add that these weight training [21] sessions must be composed of compound, full-body movements, rather than isolation exercises, because, well, compound multijoint movements are simply how we move around in the world. If you’re an advanced trainee with a strong foundation built by years of compound exercises, go ahead and hit the curls and tricep kickbacks if you like, but if you’re trying to establish or enhance your actual strength, stick with compound movements. Bodyweight is sufficient for just about everyone, but barbells, kettlebells, and other weighted implements are awesome tools, too. The PBF protocol [8] calls for 2 LHT (Lift Heavy Things) days each week.

7. In general, hunter-gatherers were lean, and probably almost never obese, which reduced trauma to their joints.

Yep. (Have you ever seen Grok [22]?) Furthermore, the obese are usually inactive, and activity – especially weight-bearing activity – increases the strength and thickness of connective tissue [23]. So it’s a double whammy. Obesity increases wear and tear on joints that are already weakened by inactivity.

8. Virtually all of the exercise was done outdoors in the natural world. Outdoor activities help maintain ultraviolet-stimulated vitamin D synthesis, improve mood, and facilitate adherence to a regular exercise program.

This is a huge aspect of fitness (and health) that goes relatively unheeded. While you can still get an extremely effective workout in a cloistered gym [24], outdoor workouts [25] provide added benefits. This isn’t rocket science. I think most people understand this intuitively. Which would you prefer: a 45 minute treadmill run in a gray room with artificial light, or a game of Ultimate Frisbee in a park on a sunny day? Or how about the choice between yoga in a studio and yoga on a cliff overlooking the ocean? Time spent in nature [26] is undeniably good for our psychological and physiological well-being [27]. I still hit up the gym for certain routines and for the camaraderie, but more and more I put an emphasis on getting back to nature – to get my daily dose of rays [28] and to recharge in a more natural environment.

9. Much of the physical activity was done in context of a social setting (small bands of individuals who were hunting or foraging were working together on various chores). There is substantial evidence that some of the psychological benefits of formal exercise training programs are derived from the social bonding and other unique aspects of the group exercise sessions. The benefits of group exercise can be conferred by structured programs and/or informal exercise sessions involving at least 2 individuals.

Look at the popularity, success, and effectiveness of something like CrossFit [29]. People are willing and able to subject their bodies to immense amounts of pain and suffering in the presence of others undergoing a similar experience. We are social animals [30] who derive great satisfaction from being with likeminded individuals. Empathy is a powerful thing, and it’s there for a reason. We’re able to transfer the suffering, to spread it out across the group and make the pain a bit more bearable. You don’t have to take a spin class or go for a Zumba session or even do CrossFit, necessarily, to get the benefits of mixing social bonding with fitness. Simply adding a single workout partner will make things easier [31] and help you stick to the regimen. Or, you could play sports [32], either in pickup game form or by joining a formal league [33].

10. Genetic evidence suggests that humans and dogs have been coevolving together for as long as 135 000 years. The mutual advantages conferred by this co-evolutionary process have been theorized to be related to cooperative hunting between domesticated wolves and our ancient hominin ancestors. Thus, both the dog and the human genomes may be specifically adapted to outdoor exercise involving cooperation between these 2 species. Indeed, studies indicate that dog ownership can facilitate adherence to an exercise program, improve fitness, and reduce excess weight among individuals.

I get my best workouts (most enjoyable, certainly) with my yellow lab, Buddha. He exudes confidence and serenity almost to the point of enlightenment, and I’m convinced that my appreciation of my dog [34] isn’t just learned. These furry guys have been living, sleeping, working, hunting, and bonding with us humans for tens of thousands of years. It’s entirely feasible that genetic advantages to having a dog (for both parties involved) have arisen and persist today. I’ve actually written about what we can learn from and how to exercise with dogs [35]. Read it and then get outdoors for some fractal fun.

11. Dancing was often performed as a part of rituals and celebrations, and is an ideal form of exercise that improves fitness and reduces stress.

As long as we’ve been drumming our hands, fingers, and sticks against objects to form rudimentary rhythmic patterns (tens of thousands, perhaps millions of years), we’ve been moving our bodies along with them. In other words, dance is unabashedly, absolutely Primal [36]. I put dance in the play [37] category, in that it’s that type of exercise that you do for the heck of it, because it’s fun (or you’re trying to procure a mate) and don’t realize you’re actually getting an amazing mental and physical workout [38]. So dance, and don’t worry about looking ridiculous. You’re just acknowledging the presence of aural rhythms in the air with your body. It’s unnatural not to do so.

12. Sexual activity has always been an important aspect of human physical and social interaction. A frequency of sexual activity of  1 or 2 times per week correlates with multiple health benefits.

Some would say that this is the most Primal activity of them all. I won’t go too deeply into this one, not for prudishness, but because I’m planning a dedicated post on the topic in the near future. Stay tuned for that one. It will, sadly and by necessity, be relatively SFW.

13. Ample time for rest, relaxation, and sleep was generally available to ensure complete recovery after strenuous exertion.

Fitting that this is the last one, because it’s what everyone always forgets about (if they ever knew it at all) or ignores. Exercise is utterly pointless and even counterproductive [39] without proper rest, relaxation [40], and sleep [41]. You need to eat well and eat enough, let your muscles rest and regrow, and have enough downtime to reap the benefits of exercise. I mean, you’re doing this to increase the quality of life, right? You want to be strong and able to run fast and far so that life is easier and you don’t have to worry about your body, right? Get your rest and sleep, then. It’s the only way forward.

Thoughts? Concerns? Did Cordain and company miss anything? Have I? What else can we learn from the physical activities of our ancestors?


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[7] PDF: http://www.mattmetzgar.com/files/2010_organic_fitness_physician_and_sports_med1.pdf

[8] Primal Blueprint Fitness: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/primal-blueprint-fitness/

[9] squat below parallel: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/how-to-proper-squat-technique/

[10] Move Frequently at a Slow Pace: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/health-benefits-moderate-exercise/

[11] leisurely: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/hunter-gatherer-leisure-time/

[12] get plenty of rest: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/rest-days/

[13] species appropriate footwear: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/barefoot-alternatives/

[14] healthy footfall: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/barefoot-running-harvard-study/

[15] WOWs: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/primal-blueprint-fitness/workout-of-the-week-archive/

[16] energy pathways: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/atp-pc-energy/

[17] lean mass: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/organ-reserve-muscle-mass-aging/

[18] joint mobility: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/joint-mobility-drills/

[19] Strength training: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/training-rest-periods/

[20] build and maintain: http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&cd=1&sqi=2&ved=0CBwQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.marksdailyapple.com%2Fgain-weight-build-muscle%2F&rct=j&q=how%20to%20gain%20weight%20and%20build%20muscle&ei=qjdSTfuoMJO2sAObubXdBg&usg=AFQjCNGk0elXoYAaaFuQLjub6FSSX9TZfw&sig2=e20GWbwkEzylMQ_vha4lFw

[21] weight training: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/monday-musings-the-dumb-jocks-myth/

[22] Grok: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/about-2/who-is-grok/

[23] connective tissue: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/arthritis-diet/

[24] cloistered gym: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/shake-your-gym-addiction/

[25] outdoor workouts: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/getting-back-to-nature/

[26] Time spent in nature: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/biophilia-nature-deficiency-children-mental-health/

[27] good for our psychological and physiological well-being: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/forest-bathing/

[28] daily dose of rays: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/vitamin-d-sun-exposure-supplementation-and-doses/

[29] CrossFit: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/crossfit/

[30] social animals: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/dunbars-number-group-size/

[31] adding a single workout partner will make things easier: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/how-to-use-the-buddy-effect-to-achieve-your-health-goals/

[32] sports: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/ultimate-frisbee/

[33] joining a formal league: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/adult-sports-leagues-and-why-you-should-join-one/

[34] dog: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/the-primal-diet-for-dogs/

[35] what we can learn from and how to exercise with dogs: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/dogs-teach-tricks-too/

[36] dance is unabashedly, absolutely Primal: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/to-dance-is-human/

[37] play: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/the-definitive-guide-to-play/

[38] don’t realize you’re actually getting an amazing mental and physical workout: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/trick-workouts/

[39] counterproductive: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/how-to-deal-with-overtraining/

[40] relaxation: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/relaxation-response/

[41] sleep: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/the-definitive-guide-to-sleep/

[42] 7-Day Course on the Primal Blueprint Fundamentals for Lifelong Health: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/subscribe-to-blog/

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