Dear Mark: Hunter-Gatherer Fitness and Volunteerism

Group Of Volunteers Tidying Up Rubbish On BeachFor today’s edition of Dear Mark, I’m answering an email that reminded me of an idea I once had that I’m convinced could really work: organizing group workout sessions like fitness bootcamps only instead of a guy barking orders as you perform a completely arbitrary set of exercises with little regard for technique, the group performs “workouts” that are actually acts of volunteerism. This makes your workouts truly count, not just as stimulants of fitness improvements but to the other people your efforts touch. It addresses an important aspect missing from most fitness programs. Humans used to perform physically demanding tasks on a regular basis in order to live, eat, and thrive. It wasn’t “exercise” or a “workout,” but it made us fit, strong, and fast just the same. And it was essential to living. It helped our immediate family and communities.

We’ve lost that, but training as volunteerism can bring some of it back.

I live in Texas where the “Don’t Mess with Texas” campaign against littering is losing the battle. On my daily walks with my dog (weighted vest on board) I’ve started picking up trash along the walk. I’m going to start carrying a large bucket and some work gloves to this end. I just wanted to share this in the hope that you would write a post about it to spread the idea.

I don’t think much can be done about the people who litter but if enough folks would go out to “gather” it could really make a difference and set an example. I think putting it out there as a great form of natural exercise that mimics our natural history might just work and you have the platform for it.

Thanks for reading!


Great suggestion. What are some ideas people could try? How can we turn our workouts into volunteerism?

Trail clearing/maintenance: Join a trail crew. Get a bunch of people together to join with you. You get to hike while carrying tools and performing manual labor requiring a variety of movements, like squatting, climbing, reaching, lifting, hauling, cutting. It’s hard work, to be sure. But it’s rewarding. You’ll be maintaining an incredibly vital public good that we, as human animals, require for optimal health and happiness: the wilderness and our access to it.

Every state has volunteer trail teams. Just Google “[your state, city, county, etc] trail volunteer” and follow the links. It’s that easy.

Labor share with friends or neighbors. Pretty much every person with a home has some project they “want” to undertake, but it never happens. Doing it alone is too large a job and paying a contractor is too expensive. There’s no time on the weekdays, and you’re so tired of working that the weekends are off-limits. Is that really true, though? Everyone lives in their own little box separated by fences and lawns and driveways, each with their own plans. There’s a lot of redundancy. A lot of people sitting around wishing they could summon the will and elbow grease to tackle that project they’ve mulled over for years.  Break down those barriers. The Amish have their barn-raisings. So should we. You probably don’t need a barn, but you can sure raise a chicken coop, tool shed, garden plot, or garage weight room. Be the one to broach the subject. You know no one else will.

Volunteering isn’t just relevant to anonymous strangers. You can volunteer to help out your friends, family, and neighbors, and they you.

Spruce up a neighborhood eyesore. Every neighborhood has that vacant lot with the weed strewn yard that makes you reconsider your anti-Roundup stance. It’s not just an aesthetic nightmare. These eyesores often tank a neighborhood’s property values. Cleaning them up, or outright demolishing them, can improve the financial situation of everyone around you.

Be sure to check with the property owner before cleaning the place up, clearing the weeds, and planting some flowers!

Plant trees. Most cities have tree planting programs because there’s nothing so dismal as an area without any trees. People go door to door planting trees and digging holes. Search “volunteer tree planting [your area]” to find a program in your hometown.

Cleanup. Although we’ve come a long way from just dumping our picnic litter all over the park, trash abounds in places it should not. Picking it up is great for the environment, and can be a great way to get in some movement.

Now, watch this video of Hadza men squatting around a monkey cooking on a fire. Note how they move through multiple positions while in the squat. They’re kneeling, going up on the toes, reaching, turning, and constantly shifting their weight from foot to foot. Instead of bending over with a rounded back to pick up that Snickers bar wrapper, try the Hadza squat. Plant yourself amidst a bunch of trash, squat down, and try different positions to retrieve it.

Beach cleanup. Beach cleanups are harder than any other type of cleanup because you’re walking for miles and miles on soft, spongy sand. There’s nothing more exhausting than sinking into the ground every step you take. You waste a lot of energy. Bad for a hunter-gatherer trying to conserve calories. Great for a coddled modern human trying to increase energy expenditure.

Google “[your area] beach cleanup.” No promises if you’re landlocked, of course.

Be a volunteer dog walker. This is pretty much the most Primal volunteer job ever. You get to hang out with your ancestral best friend, a dog. You get to do what ancient humans have done more than any other activity, walk. And although your humane society may not include this in the job description, bring along a tug-of-war toy, too. Playing tug of war is a great way to let a dog “strength train.” Dogs need more than just walking.

Google “[your area] volunteer dog walking” or head down to the local humane society.

Help a senior or disabled person. Next time you see Mrs. Jenkins hobbling from her car into the house or Bill the Vietnam war vet puttering around his yard making little headway on the encroaching weeds, ask if they could use a hand with anything. Ask if they’d like to make this a regular thing.

Those people tell the best stories and, if their memory’s intact, you can get incredible insights about the days of yore.

“Is Mad Men a realistic portrayal of corporate workplaces in the 1960s?”

“How good were McDonald’s fries before they switched from beef tallow?”

There’s always something to be moved, some furniture to be carried elsewhere, some garage to be cleared. Or even a dog to be walked. You’ll get a great workout, help a person who could use it, and hear some cool stories to boot.

Google “[your area] elderly neighbor volunteering.” That was intended to be tongue-in-cheek, but it actually produces actionable results.

What do these ideas all have in common? They objectively help others. They are Good Deeds. And they’re a great way to get a decent workout, to stay active and mobile in the manner of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. There’s no downside.

But there’s resistance, isn’t there? It’s easier to not do the thing. It’s way easier to just not go help clean up a beach or a county park. And it’s definitely way easier to not introduce yourself to the neighbor who might need some assistance. I implore you: ignore that voice tugging at your elbow, telling you to move along. Just make the commitment, the introduction, the offer. The actual act of volunteering is quite often enjoyable, once you’re enmeshed in it. Workouts aren’t exactly pleasant, but we do them.

Just imagine the kind of change you could effect if, once or twice a week, you and 10 to 20 others got together to clean up a park, blaze a trail, or perform some other public good. Pooling efforts reduces the efforts required of the individual and maximizes the output—and benefit. And you get a workout, too, plus the chance to make new friends and connections. It’s the perfect fusion of selfishness and selflessness that we need to make good things happen.

I’ll leave you with a few more ideas to help you get started:

Join NextDoor, a sort of Facebook for neighborhoods. You enter your address and get linked up with everyone else in your area. It’s the perfect place to organize local efforts.

Start a MeetUp group. Feel free to link to this post, or quote sections from it to help convey the idea.

Google volunteering calendars for your area. Comb the lists and find something that requires physical activity.

Start a thread on the MDA forums. Share ideas, find local people to join you.

Let’s hear from you. Can you think of any volunteer opportunities that also double as effective ways to stay active?

TAGS:  dear mark

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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30 thoughts on “Dear Mark: Hunter-Gatherer Fitness and Volunteerism”

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  1. Live in Texas also….so I can identify….and I pick it up when I am walking my dogs…but instead of a bucket, I just carry a plastic bag. There are all kinds of
    stuff that people can do for misc. exercise, but we are conditioned against it….
    We are conditioned to be “labor saving devices…” 🙂

  2. I joined NextDoor and answered a request from a neighbor who needed a dog walker. So now I walk her dog an hour a day during the week.

  3. To me it is sad that the CW successfully pressured McDonald’s into changing their once-primal french fries into just another junk food.

  4. We have a snow shoveling program in our city where you volunteer to shovel an elderly person’s snow for the winter. It’s a great way to meet people in your neighbourhood and get a good workout.

  5. Another great way is through building projects like raised beds for community gardens, Habitat for Humanity home building, fencing for vulnerable flora and fauna to protect them from cars/humans, building bat houses … the list goes on.

  6. Are you reading my mind? That’s the second post already in November that exactly matches my thoughts. I’d be worried if I were you, Mark…

    Litter-picking while walking the local byways…my plan for my next job break (likely January). But I also thought about starting it as a group and advertising it as a workout…

    1. Telepathy is a little known side effect of Primal…

      Good call on the workout group, I bet you’ll get a great response. Let us know how it goes!

  7. In Virginia, we have the problem of overgrown yards, because the St. Augustine grass here grows like weeds from getting its moisture from the air (humidity) rather than from the ground. to top it off, there are scads of elderly people who just can no longer keep up with mowing, or don’t mow any more because their doctor told them not to (blood pressure issues, on blood thinners, broken mower, etc.).

    There are people who go up and down the streets seeking out such yards, asking for permission, mowing, then charging whatever the owner can afford to pay. Quite often, it is nothing. Sometimes, enough to pay for the gas used.

    I used to mow such a house three doors down from me, but the place has been sold, and sits idle while the new owner (a pilot) figures out what to do with it–it was built in the 20’s, and frankly needs to be torn down. In the meantime, somebody comes by about once a month to mow.

    Another eyesore are the houses up for sale that get mowed about once an eon. Honestly, how does one expect to sell a house when the yard looks like a wheat field? This is another opportunity for the mowers among you to seize upon by calling the realty company and striking a deal for a possible mowing contract–they might even have you mow ALL their listed properties, or maybe just the ones in your zip code. Got a truck/trailer, or means to haul your mower around? You’re the boss–make the offer. They can either hear from you or the city (with a mowing ticket).

  8. In my neighborhood there is a concrete stairway leading up a hill. It’s 139 steps. I do my intervals on them. 2 years ago I noticed they are never cleaned and there can be a lot of leaves on them. So I took it upon myself to clean them when the need arises. The “thank you’s” I get from the other people using them does my heart as much good as my intervals do.

  9. I volunteer to cane the slobs that throw trash out their car windows. That would be a gratifying workout.

  10. Ooh we came across some of those trail-fixing guys when we were hiking in the south of France last year. They used pickaxes to hew the trail out of the side of the mountain, and said they were usually up there for ten day stretches. Pretty hard core! (though they also had hammocks and a beer cooler, the latter of which struck me as funny)

  11. Growing up near the “arson capitol of the US” I learned fire can “spruce up a neighborhood eyesore”. The problem was most of the city was an eyesore. Shame too, it was a major canal city used for early manufacturing. Somehow this town is also the birthplace of Volleyball. Holoyoke is also home to two great urban permaculturists whose property is called “Parasdise Lot”. Heck, Geoff Lawton himself visited and shot video. Crazy world.

  12. Volunteering for trail work is an awesome and rewarding workout! Took me a while after years of working on trail crews to feel like volunteering for them. It’s a great sense of accomplishment to use the trail you helped build, and many public land entities rely on volunteers for trail maintenance and building! My friend and I were actually joking while working the other day that we should brand and sell this new “workout” as the best “functional fitness” innovation to rich people – picking up and moving heavy rocks, swinging pick axes, running up hills, balancing, walking with heavy equipment on your back, etc. HAHA!

  13. As someone with a corner lot who is CONSTANTLY picking up trash that people throw out of their cars onto my yard, I’d suggest that another primal friendly activity would be hunting litter bugs down and throwing rocks at them and their cars!

  14. I chose to pick up litter while taking walks near various RV campgrounds. Got a lot of satisfaction out of doing something
    so simple.

  15. The common areas around my home are planted with acres of Cape Honeysuckle. I have been itching to set up one or more bee hives to support the bee population and harvest local honey for the neighborhood. This post just may be the catalyst to be that apiary guy that set up those Flow Hives.

  16. Great post ! If everyone in my hometown can read and save our sea and beach like this.
    In my country, it is a mess every high travel season. Dirty, plastic, trash come all to the sea.
    So this post I already shared to my friends on Facebook, to raise their attitude to the environment.

  17. Best post this year!
    The positive multiplier effect of picking up someone else’s rubbish is huge:
    – people who see you picking up stuff get the encouragement they need to step up and do likewise,
    – people who would never “pick up someone else’s crap” at least think twice before chucking their own rubbish out of their car window.
    – local neighbours are grateful for your efforts,
    – you get to move in lots of varying ways (rather than plain straight line walking) as you squat, jump fences and carry stuff.

  18. I volunteer at my local rail museum maintaining heritage carriages. Climbing up into the carriages 10 times a day is a workout in itself, let alone all the stretching and twisting to work on compartment ceilings or in tiny washrooms. My body usually knows about it the next day.

    Get fit, make friends, and save history. Works for me.

  19. Great idea! This will be a very good activity for elderly in nursing homes which can help improve their brain function too…

    And studies show that people with mild cognitive impairment improved their memory and the efficiency of their brain cells, AND improved cardiorespiratory fitness 10%, after just 3 months of regular exercise. These also included a group of cognitively normal people who saw similar benefits. No study has shown that a drug can do what is possible with exercise though!

  20. I do think we can also hit the source of litter! People can change and feel better they use a trashcan. My efforts go to getting rid of plastic bags. I give reusable bags with every gift I give. I only use my own bags. Most of them are way cool and conversation starters. Now, go use your own bags. Ditch the plastic!

  21. Fall leaf-raking is a great time to volunteer around your neighborhood, and it’s also a great opportunity to get kids involved, since the work is simple and safe (and can involve jumping in giant piles of leaves).

  22. Such a wonderful message for folks–that meditation doesn’t have to take place seated cross-legged on a cushion.

    I practice yoga asanas twice daily…and listen to audio dharma talks while doing a conscious breathing practice many evenings.

    But when working with clients, most of the meditative practices I teach have to do with food and eating. Mindful eating…and practicing non-reactive awareness around eating and cravings (before, during, after) can be really simple–but surprisingly powerful. Done consistently and with attentiveness, guided practices around eating and food can create such amazing shifts over time.

  23. This post is so inspiring! Often it is the lack of motivation that keeps people from working out, but this approach can resonate with people on a very different level. They aren’t just exercising to benefit themselves, they are benefiting others and their communities. Great ideas.

  24. Yep, I do a lot of cleaning up, wherever we are–my husband fishes (talk about primal! What great meals…) and I sketch, but usually we both pick up whatever little we find along the way. Lots of stretching and bending and gathering…

    Unfortunately a lot of fishermen aren’t careful of their monofilament line that’s awful for wildlife. I saw a coot in Nevada a few days ago with a line and lead sinker hanging from its beak like a pendulum…if I could have caught him to help, I would have. (Tried, but of course the hook was probably swallowed, in any case. Makes me crazy.)

    I’ve taken to keeping a trash bag in the car and we often fill it by day’s end.

    About the trail crew thing…you might want to check with the park to let them know what you’re doing. I heard of a group of friends who picked up a bag of trash along the trail (Appalachian Trail, I think) and dumped it when they got back to the trailhead, in the approved trash can–and got arrested for littering! CRAZY.

  25. Yep, I do a lot of cleaning up, wherever we are–my husband fishes (talk about primal! What great meals…) and I sketch, but usually we both pick up whatever little we find along the way. Lots of stretching and bending and gathering…