Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...Tell Me More
I get emails every day from people who are changing their lives for the better by following the guidelines I outline on this site. But many are looking for more of what the Primal Blueprint has to offer. That is to say, they want a comprehensive break down of the elements that make up the Blueprint; a Primal primer if you will. In coming weeks I will be going into detail – anthropological evidence, modern research, etc. – regarding this health philosophy, but I first want to offer up this summary of the Blueprint. I think it is a good starting point for what is to come.
In this extended article you will find the basic building blocks needed to discover the Primal side of your life. What does this mean? It means learning and understanding what it means to be human. It means using this knowledge to help you make important lifestyle choices. It means modeling your life after your ancestors in order to promote optimal health and wellness. And, most importantly, it means taking control of your body and mind.
If this article intrigues you be on the look out for a much more thorough explanation of how we can learn from our past to shape and mold our future.
My basic premise is this: The Primal Blueprint is a set of simple instructions (the blueprint) that allows you to control how your genes express themselves in order to build the strongest, leanest, healthiest body possible, taking clues from evolutionary biology (that’s the primal part).
Sometimes we get so lost in the science of human biology we just can’t see the forest for the trees. We overlook the simplicity and ease with which we could all be achieving exceptional health and fitness.
Living in modern society is extremely complex. With daily mind-boggling achievements made in science, technology and medicine, and with an ever-expanding knowledge base that increasingly grows more esoteric and niche, it is no wonder that we often look for complicated scientific solutions to problems that really only require simple answers. One of the best examples is the huge – and expensive – race to identify all the new possible genetic variances (or SNPs) within the human genome that might predispose some of us to certain health conditions. Hardly a week goes by without a new announcement of the discovery of a so-called “defective” gene that increases someone or some group’s risk of being obese, of getting cancer, of developing type 2 diabetes or arthritis. The net effect of all these announcements and the sensationalized news headlines is that many of us have become accustomed to blaming our health conditions on our unlucky inheritance of these “defective” genes. As if it weren’t enough to abdicate responsibility here, we then cross our fingers and close our eyes and hope that the scientists can create pharmaceutical “answers” to our particular condition before it’s too late. In most cases a few lifestyle adjustments are all that are needed to address all but the most serious of these genetic variations. Yes, I agree that some serious genetic diseases exist which are best treated with modern, truly life-saving drugs, but for the vast majority of the minor genetic variations that exist throughout the human genome, the real deciding factor as to whether or not a particular gene will be expressed in a particular manner, if at all, comes down to what you eat, how you move, what kind of air you breathe, what you think – in other words your environment. Big Pharma (CW) doesn’t want us to believe that most of our ills can be so easily solved, and so billions of dollars are being spent to unlock the so-called secrets of the genome. Meanwhile, the real secrets – and solutions – are contained within the DNA of every single one of our cells.
The essence of the Primal Blueprint is this: Most of life is really much simpler than modern medicine and science would like to have you believe. You can have a tremendous impact on how your genes express themselves, simply by providing your cells the right environments. All you need is a basic understanding of how your body works and a simple philosophical roadmap you can use to find answers to just about any questions of health and fitness – whether it involves personal choices or lifestyle adjustments or whether medical intervention might be appropriate. With this simple strategy, you will forever be able to examine or evaluate any food choice, any form of exercise or any other behavior in the context of how it impacts your genes! Even if you decide to opt for a “bad choice”, at least you’ll know why it’s bad…
You may already have a pretty fair understanding of how the human genome evolved to exactly where it is today (or 10,000 years ago, to be more precise) based on the environmental and behavioral factors under which our ancestors lived through natural selection. Tens of thousands of anthropologists, evolutionary biologists, paleontologists, geneticists and others have worked for over 100 years to piece together a fairly detailed picture of all the elements that helped influence our development as a species. Ironically though, when we examine all of the many environmental influences and behaviors that shaped our genome, we arrive at a very simple list of general things our early ancestors did to become what and who they were and which allowed them to pass 99.9% of those genes down to us. In essence, this list is the original “Primal Blueprint” since it provided the only set of behaviors they knew – the exact behaviors that enabled then to shape their bodies into healthy, robust, happy beings.
This is the basic description of everything our ancestors ate to get the protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phenols, fiber, water and other nutrients necessary to sustain life. But it was a huge list of individual foods – some anthropologists say it may have been 200 or 300 food choices at a time depending upon the geographic area. The net result was a dietary “breakdown” of fat, protein and carbohydrate that was far different from what Conventional Wisdom considers optimum today. This diet provided all the necessary fuel and building blocks that, along with specific exercise, prompted their genes to create strong muscles, enabled them to expend lots of energy each day moving about, to maintain healthy immune systems, to evolve larger brains and to raise healthy children. They ate sporadically, too. When food was plentiful, they ate more than they needed (and stored the excess as fat). When times were scarce, they survived on fat stores. This random or “non-linear” eating pattern kept their bodies in a constant state of preparedness.
We know that our ancestors spent an average of several hours each day moving about at what today’s exercise physiologists might describe as a “low level aerobic pace.” They hunted, gathered, foraged, wandered, scouted, migrated, climbed and crawled. This low level of activity prompted their genes to build a stronger capillary (blood vessel) network to fuel each muscle cell, to be able to store some excess food as fat, but also to be readily able to convert the stored fat back into energy. Of course, they did all this without the benefit of paved sidewalks or comfortable shoes. Because every footfall landed at a different angle, every muscle, tendon and ligament worked and became stronger together in balance. Note that they did NOT go out and “jog” at 80% of their MAX Heart Rate for long periods of time as Conventional Wisdom suggests today!
The women carried their babies much of the time (hey, no babysitters in those days), as well as bundles of firewood, or whatever they had gathered, foraged or scavenged. The men carried heavy spears or other tools, they dragged heavy carcasses of animals they had hunted, and they moved large boulders or logs to build shelters. They also lifted themselves into trees or up onto higher ground when escaping from danger or to scout a new route. The biochemical signals created by these very brief but intense muscle contractions generated a slight surge in growth hormone and a reduction in myostatin gene expression, prompting an increase in muscle size and power; particularly fast twitch fibers.
In a world where danger lurked around every corner, your ability to run was a strong indicator of whether you would live long enough to pass your genes down to the next generation. (Note to Nietzsche: That which didn’t kill Grok made him stronger). Avoiding a charging beast to save your life, or surging forward to catch a different beast for dinner, the net effect was still survival. A combination of the hormonal events that occurred simultaneously and the resultant gene expression within fast twitch muscle made sure that the next time this happened Grok could sprint a little faster.
Our ancestors got plenty of sleep. Even after the discovery of fire, it wasn’t as if they stayed up all night partying. From sunset to sunrise it was safer to huddle together and rest. Long days of hunting and gathering and otherwise working hard for every bite of food also required sufficient time to repair and recover. Studies of modern hunter-gatherers suggest it wasn’t necessarily always an uninterrupted nine or ten hours, either. It’s likely that they slept together as families or as small tribes, keeping a watch out for predators, breast-feeding the baby or just dozing in and out throughout the night. Growth hormone and melatonin were the major hormonal players. Of course, the occasional afternoon nap was also available when the urge hit, with no guilt about what else they really should have been doing.
Just like in modern times, all work and no play made Grok a dull boy. Hunter-gatherers have always generally worked fewer hours and have had more leisure time than the average 40-hour-plus American worker. Once the day’s catch was complete or the roots, shoots, nuts and berries had been gathered, our ancestors spent hours involved in various forms of social interaction that we might categorize today as “play.” Young males would chase each other around and wrestle, vying for a place higher up in the tribe social strata. The males might also practice spear- or rock-throwing for accuracy or chase small animals just for sport. Young females might spend time grooming each other. To the extent that play was considered enjoyable, the net effect was to solidify social bonds and to prompt the release of endorphins (feel-good brain chemicals) and to mitigate any lingering stress effects of life-threatening situations.
Cavemen weren’t really men (or women) who lived their lives in caves all the time. Most of the day, they were in the great outdoors pursuing their various survival tasks. Regular exposure to sun provided lots of vitamin D, an all-important vitamin which they could not easily obtain from food and which their bodies could not manufacture without direct sunlight.
Our ancestors required an acute sense of self-preservation matched with a keen sense of observation. Always scanning, smelling, listening to the surroundings, on the watch for danger, aware of what immediate action needed to be taken, whether it was running from a saber-tooth tiger, dodging a falling rock, eluding a poisonous snake, or just avoiding a careless footfall. Remember that a twisted knee or a broken ankle could spell death to anyone who couldn’t run away from danger. In fact, it was probably trauma (or a brief careless lapse in judgment) that was most responsible for the low average life expectancy of our ancestors, despite their otherwise robust good health. Avoid trauma and there was a very good chance you could live to be 60 or 70 – and be extremely healthy and fit. Modern day hunter gatherers maintain strength and health often well into their 80s.
Man’s ability to exploit almost every corner of this earth was partly predicated on his ability to consume vastly different types of plant and animal life. But moving into a new environment and trying new foods posed a danger that the new food might contain potent toxins. Luckily, our liver and kidneys evolved to handle most brushes with novel-but-slightly-poisonous plant matter – at least to keep us alive anyway if the stomach didn’t regurgitate it first. Our keen senses of smell and taste also helped us sort out the good from the bad. The reason we have a sweet tooth today (dammit) is probably an evolved response to an almost universal truth in the plant world that just about anything that tastes sweet is safe to eat.
Obviously, one of the most important things that separate man from all other animals is his intellectual ability. The rapid increase in the size of our brains over just a few thousand generations is the combined result of a high-fat, high protein diet (see rule #1) and a continued reliance on complex thought – working the brain out just like a muscle. Hunter gatherers all around the world have developed language, tools and superior hunting methods independently. The fact that some haven’t entered the industrial age doesn’t mean they don’t possess the same ability to process information rapidly and effectively (try living in a jungle where you need to catalog thousands of different plant and animal species, knowing which can kill you and which can sustain you).
That’s the full – albeit general – list of behaviors that shaped our current genome (OK, I left out the sex part because that kind of goes without saying. On the other hand, having sex with your partner IS a natural part of the Primal Blueprint. I’ll cover it in a future post)…
If there’s any doubt on your part about whether or not we should emulate our ancestors’ behavior (but in a context of a modern world) let’s at least agree that we are looking to achieve some very similar benefits. Certainly, we all want to be:
Ideally, we’d never want to be sick. We’d want to be in the best possible health all of the time.
We’d want to have lots of energy to do all the fun things life has to offer and not feel like we are dragging at any point during the day.
No one wants to be depressed or miserable. It’s no way to go through life. We want a reason to get out of bed every day and take on all the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.
We’d want to be in a metabolically balanced state where we burn off our excess or stored fat, where we find a point at which we have enough fat to be healthy, but we rarely (or never) store any more additional fat.
Let’s face it: we’d want muscles that not only look great in a bathing suit, but that serve us well in allowing us to move, to play, and to stay balanced throughout that movement. That means well-balanced strength with proportional muscles.
We’d want full access to our mental faculties, to be bright and alert, creative, focused when appropriate, able to recall all the great memories, etc.
We’d certainly want to feel as if we are contributing to ourselves, our family and society.
We know from evolutionary biology that our ancestors exemplified all the above healthy traits (as I will detail later). Those may or may not have been their stated goals, but those attributes certainly allowed them to survive the rigors of a hostile environment and be in a position to pass their traits along to the next generation, and finally, to us.
Now, understanding that everything we do, eat, think and breathe can affect our 10,000-year-old genes, how does that Original Primal Blueprint compare to what we might have to do today to achieve robust good health, a well-sculpted body, a strong immune system, boundless energy and an increase in productivity – all the goals we are after? Ironically, it’s almost the exact same thing.
Focus on quality sources of protein (all forms of meat, fowl, fish), lots of colorful vegetables, some select fruits (mostly berries), and healthy fats (nuts, avocados, olive oil). Observe portion control (calorie distribution) week to week more than meal to meal. Eliminate grains, sugars, trans- and hydrogenated fats from your diet.
Do some form of low level aerobic activity 2-5 hours a week, whether it is walking, hiking, easy bike riding or swimming. Ideally, and when possible, find time to go barefoot or wear as little foot support as possible. Low-level activity is necessary (especially if you find yourself chained to a desk every day). The combined effect will be an increase in capillary perfusion, fat-burning and overall integration of muscle strength and flexibility.
Go to the gym and lift weights for 30-45 minutes, 2-3 times a week. Focus on movements that involve the entire body and in wider ranges of motion – not just on isolating body parts. Emulate the movements of our ancestors: jumping, squatting, lunging, pushing, pulling, twisting, etc. This will stimulate your genes to increase muscle strength and power, increase bone density, improve insulin sensitivity, stimulate growth hormone secretion, and consume stored body fat.
Do some form of intense anaerobic sprint bursts several times a week. This could be as simple as six or eight (or more) short sprints up a hill, on the grass, at the beach… or repeated intense sessions on a bicycle (stationary, road or mountain bike). These short bursts also increase HGH release (HGH is actually released in proportion to the intensity (not the duration) of the exercise).
Get plenty of quality sleep. Our lives are so hectic and full of things to do after the sun goes down that it’s often difficult to get enough sleep. Yet sleep is one of the most important factors in maintaining good health, vibrant energy and a strong immune system.
Spend some time each week involved in active play. In addition to allowing you to apply your fitness to a real-life situation, play helps dissipate some of the negative effects of the chronic stress hormones you’ve been accumulating through the week.
Contrary to the“Common Wisdom” dispensed by dermatologists (who suggest you shun the sun), the Primal Blueprint would insist that you get some direct sunlight every day. Certainly not so much that you come close to burning, but definitely enough to prompt your body to make the all-important vitamin D and to support the mood-lifting benefits. A slight tan is a good indicator that you have maintained adequate Vitamin D levels. Natural sunlight also has a powerful mood-elevating effect, which can enhance productivity at work and in inter-personal interactions.
Eliminate self-destructive behaviors. These concepts are self evident to most people (wear seat belts, don’t smoke or do drugs, don’t dive into shallow water) yet so many of us live our lives oblivious to impending danger. Develop a keen sense of awareness of your surroundings.
Avoid exposure to chemical toxins in your food (pesticides, herbicides, chemicals, etc) and on your skin. But also try to avoid the hidden poisons in foods like sugars, grains, processed foods, trans and hydrogenated fats, and mercury in certain fish.
Exercise your brain daily as our ancestors did. Be inventive, creative, and aware. If your work is not stimulating (or even if it is), find time to read, write, play an instrument and interact socially.
As with the Original Primal Blueprint, this list is very general, designed simply to allow you to understand that everything our ancestors did can benefit us as well. Except that we can do it having fun, enjoying every aspect of the lifestyle and without worrying about our survival! In future blog posts (and to a much greater extent in my book) I will be going into much more detail as to how and why these behaviors work and exactly what foods to eat, what exercises to do and how to otherwise find ways to allow your genes to recreate you in the healthiest, fittest way possible.
Prefer listening to reading? Get an audio recording of this blog post, and subscribe to the Primal Blueprint Podcast on iTunes for instant access to all past, present and future episodes here.