The A-to-Z Guide to Leading a Primal Lifestyle

Print this out. Bookmark it. Send it to friends who don’t quite get the Primal thing. Consider this a valuable resource for all-things Primal. It’s a nice, alphabetical encapsulation of what it means to lead a Primal lifestyle. It’s not everything, of course. You can always dig deeper into the details, but this summary gives a high-level look at just about everything.

Without further ado, I present The A-to-Z Guide to Leading a Primal Lifestyle.

Avoid chronic cardio. I spent about half my life running (and later, with triathlons, swimming and cycling) myself into the ground. I thought the more miles I could log, the healthier I’d be. That’s the mindset many people have, and it’s absolutely wrong. Running a ten-miler is different than running a ten-miler every day. We have the capacity to go long distances and even outlast wild animals upon which we’re preying. We don’t have the capacity to do that every single day without consequences to our health. Run long distances if you love it, compete if you love competing, but know the cost it incurs.

Barefoot is best. We’re born barefoot. Kids who are allowed to go barefoot or wear non-constrictive shoes grow up with excellent foot health because their feet grow naturally. They don’t need arch support because they develop their own built-in arches. They have lower rates of flat footedness. And perhaps most importantly, being barefoot allows a person to utilize the vast array of nerves, muscles, and connective tissue to experience the world underneath them—a rich world of which shoe-wearers are mostly ignorant.

Chronic stress is to be avoided. Before the advent of traffic jams, nagging bosses presiding over soul-sucking jobs, credit card debt, and other ceaseless sources of unpleasantness, most sources of stress were punctuated and acute. That’s the environment in which our physiologies, nervous systems, and adrenal responses evolved: one of acute stressors. We simply can’t handle a steady load of stress without suffering, which is why chronic stress is linked to heart disease, hypertension, overeating, and a host of other health conditions.

Ditch grains, refined sugar, and processed seed oils. They’re low in nutrients (and in the case of sugar and oils, completely bereft of them), high in toxins, and represent empty sources of carbohydrates and bad fat. And it’s not just that these foods were unavailable to humans for most of our history. That’s just the jumping off point for the hypothesis. It’s that modern science has identified refined grains, sugar, and seed oils as particularly deleterious to our health.

Expose yourself to stressors. If chronic stress is a historically unprecedented physiological insult that impairs our immune, mental, and physical health, acute stressors train our body to rise up to meet stress and grow stronger. Almost anything can be quantified in terms of stress. Exercise is a stressor. Too much exercise without adequate rest is a chronic stressor, but the right dose of exercise famously increases strength, builds muscle, and improves fitness. Other stressors include anything that takes you out of your comfort zone, that displaces your sense of homeostasis. Cold water (take the plunge), cold weather, learning a new skill from scratch.

Fat is good for you. Decades of health experts and government officials telling us to eat less fat—especially arteryclogging guidesaturated fat—has given us sky high obesity rates. So instead of trimming fat off your steaks, buying non-fat dairy, eating margarine instead of butter, fearing nuts and avocados and olive oil, you’ll have much better luck (and better-tasting meals) embracing healthy, natural fats found in animals, fruits (like coconuts, avocados, and olives), and fish.

Get sun exposure. Spending our days cloistered inside is a historical aberration. We’re meant to be outside, exposed to the sun from time to time. Full spectrum sun exposure promotes the production of vitamin D (a pro hormone responsible for hundreds of important physiological functions and health effects), nitric oxide (which maintains and improves endothelial function and blood flow), and happiness (which is tough to quantify but who doesn’t feel better after being in the sun?). Plus, getting full sunlight in the morning and afternoon helps establish a natural, healthy circadian rhythm. You shouldn’t burn yourself. You don’t need to suntan or “lay out.” But smart, sensible, moderate amounts of sun are far better for your health than avoiding it altogether.

Hunger is normal. A supposed benefit to living in the modern world is that few people go hungry anymore. Even if you’re poor, or heck, even homeless, you can usually fill your belly with adequate calories. But the flip-side of this is that no one’s ever hungry. Most people reside in a state of perpetual snacking. Instead of eating separate meals, they’re consuming a steady drip of food throughout the day. When you allow yourself to go hungry between meals, the food you do eat tastes better (hunger is the best spice). When you (gasp) skip a meal, you kickstart fat-burning and unlock a host of beneficial health effects.

Intensity of training rules. Make your short workouts shorter and more intense and your long workouts longer and easier. Go hard if you’re going to go hard. Go easy if you’re going to go easy. Don’t spend all your time in that middle area where you’re working hard for hours at a time, and you end up getting hurt or overeating or being unable to recover.

Just eat plants and animals. This is really what healthy eating comes down to: eating plants (nuts, berries, leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, herbs and spices, sea vegetables, roots, and tubers) and animals (pasture-raised beef, lamb, pork, bison, ostrich, venison, chicken, and eggs; dairy, particularly grass-fed and fermented dairy; sea animals like wild fish, shellfish, and various other crustaceans). If you do that, and make sure you’re eating the whole animal—offal, skin, bones—and not just muscle meat, you’ll be hard pressed to find a nutritional deficiency.

Keep up with your social relationships. You don’t have to be a social gadfly. You don’t have to be the life of the party or have dozens upon dozens of friends and acquaintances. But it’s important to have people (however many) you can really count on.

Lift heavy things. Strength training isn’t just for gym bros. Gym bros need it, yes, but strength training is absolutely essential for everyone. The elderly and women in particular should lift heavy things because they’re the populations most at risk for osteoporosis and most likely to avoid strength training for fear of injury or “getting too bulky.” Lean muscle mass is the strongest correlate with mortality. As Mark Rippetoe says, stronger people are harder to kill.

Mind your carb intake. Eat the right number of carbs for you, your situation, you training level, your personal physiology, your carb tolerance. For many people, this means eating fewer carbs. For some, it warrants eating more of them.

Nature is your home. We all come from nature. For millions of years, humans and our ancestors lived in forests, prairies, open plains, deserts, along rivers, near beaches, on mountains, in valleys. If you’ve ever gone camping and just felt right at home, that’s because you were home. So go camping, go barefoot in the dirt, hike as often as you can, trail run, gaze at the stars, peer at far-off vistas (don’t just take a photo with your phone and forget about it), go to the beach/desert/snow.

Old age isn’t the end. To be Primal is to age gracefully. It may not make you live past (or even to) a hundred, but by lifting heavy things regularly you can build the lean mass that will keep you vibrant and the strength that will allow you to attack life until you drop. By staying active, you’ll never give your body a chance to settle into old age sedentism. By keeping your mind engaged, getting enough sleep, and eating colorful plants and nutrient-dense animals, you will very possibly stave off the cognitive degeneration we normally associate with old age. Being Primal promotes compression of morbidity. Even if your life isn’t any longer than your pill-popping, walker-using peers, it will almost assuredly be better.

Play more. Adult humans are funny creatures. We complain about the drudgery of our jobs, the lack of “fun” in our lives, that there’s “nothing to do” on the weekends, yet we squander a characteristic intrinsic to humans and fairly unique in the animal kingdom: our ability to play. Mammals play, but many of them stop once they reach adulthood. Human adults stop playing, too, but they don’t have to. Play (physical, mental, whatever’s enjoyable) keeps us young and makes life worth living. Plus, it’s just fun. And that’s everything.

Question everything. I created the Primal Blueprint only because I began questioning conventional wisdom. And I’ve never stopped questioning what I or others believe because I consider it essential to this kind of life. Examine your biases. Question your assumptions. Accept nothing less.

Run really fast sometimes. Folks often say that humans aren’t really great sprinters. We can’t outrun most wild animals in a flat-out foot race. But it’s undeniable that sprinting is, pound for pound, the best use of your training time if brevity is the concern. The science confirms this. It boosts fat burning, increases both short-distance and long-distance cardiovascular fitness, builds strength in a fraction of the time it’d take to achieve it through other means. If I can’t do anything else, if I can’t get to the gym or I only have a few minutes to spare, I sprint. Always. I find a steep hill and run up it as fast I can.

Sit less. It’s not enough to exercise 3-5 times a week, go on long hikes when you get the opportunity, and actively commute to work on a bike. Every hour you spend sitting has metabolic and longterm consequences. Study after study has found strong connections between time spent sitting and all-cause mortality—even controlling for exercise.

Take it easy. It’s a misconception that hunter-gatherers work harder than anyone else. Experts who have studied modern hunter-gatherer societies estimate that most members of these communities spend about 3-5 hours a day “working”. If you want to be like Grok, make sure you get plenty of leisure time.

Use your mind. The human brain has conquered the planet, pondered the great mysteries of our universe, and invented the iPhone. It’s a real shame to squander it. Read books. Write books. Engage in lively, stimulating conversations. Think deeply. Study philosophy, science, history. Learn another language. Create something. Play an instrument.

Visit the moment. The past is gone. The future isn’t here yet. But right now? Right here? The present moment is all we have. It’s all we’ll ever have, so we’d better pay attention to it or we’ll miss out on our entire lives.

Walk a lot. Humans are obligate walkers. It’s simply what we do best. And though the demands of modern life—jobs, commutes, and home lives we spend sitting for hours and hours—have turned us into elective sitters, the human body responds remarkably well to lots of slow movement throughout the day. I’m not saying you should quit your comfy job to became a wandering vagrant. Just find a balance between all that sitting and all that walking. Take hikes, park far away, walk to lunch, take five minute walking breaks every hour, go for an evening stroll after dinner—that kind of thing.

X-rays are Primal. Just because something wasn’t available to our paleolithic ancestors doesn’t mean it’s dangerous, or unhealthy, or undesirable. Humans are above all else tool users. Modern technology, whether smartphones, cars, computers, Twitter, or medical diagnostic imaging, can help us be healthier, happier, and arguably more Primal. We needn’t shun it. And modern science ultimately allows us to test our hypotheses regarding ancestral ways of living.

You’re the boss. You’re reading this blog and ostensibly paying attention to the words I write, but they’re just that: words for your consideration. They aren’t the law (even though I write about things called Primal Laws). They are suggestions. You decide what happens and, more importantly, how to respond to what happens. It’s your choice to make.

Zs are valuable quarry. That’s an awkward way of saying “prioritize sleep.” Without sleep, we can’t recover from our workouts. We can’t consolidate memories or integrate new skills we’ve just learned. Without sleep, our health suffers. Our resistance to stress decreases, our attraction to junk food increases, and our insulin sensitivity plummets. Poor sleep is associated with a host of health issues, like cancer, diabetes and obesity. Better catch your Zs (napping helps).

That about does it, folks. Have I missed any major topics? Let me know in the comment board! Thanks for reading.

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.

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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38 thoughts on “The A-to-Z Guide to Leading a Primal Lifestyle”

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  1. About the carbs, may need more or less, but how did Grok count them. We have myfitnesspal but I absolutely dislike having to always enter my food intake everyday.

    1. I use MFP as well, and I agree that it’s really tedious to submit everything. But what I’ve found is that if I don’t use it, I overestimate my caloric and carb intake too easily, and it’s why I put weight on when I was unable to exercise, even though I was following a Primal diet.

      Once I got back into the habit of logging my exercise and my food, it felt less tedious. It also opened my eyes as to the mistakes I was making in portion sizes and so on without the logging. I’ve found MFP to be an invaluable tool to help me stay on track (I began using it three years ago when I first started following the Primal diet and I wound up losing 17lbs in 3 months.)

      Also, using MFP allows me to plan ahead so I can work in a pint of beer or maybe a second glass of wine–even the (very) occasional scoop of ice cream while still remaining balanced and within the carb intake the Primal way suggests. (I mostly follow the 80%/20% Primal way, 80% being the Primal part, and then there are phases where I’m 100%.)

      MFP has also helped me realize that there are days when I’m taking in too few *net* calories (on my much harder workout days), thereby leading me to understand I need to factor in something more for that day–even if it’s just a spoonful or two of coconut butter.

      It took me about a week to get over (again) the tediousness of logging everything I ate. Look at it as a tool to keep you on track.

      1. Thanks for your input Heather. I may need to do this to get myself back on track.

        1. You’re welcome!

          Maybe try embracing the tediousness (accepting it as part of what keeps you focused on what you want) for awhile. 🙂

    2. Overtime, once you’ve been clean of the standard American diet, you will get really good at regulating your carb intake to your actual needs. Last night, before bed, I had some black beans and salsa and a little sweet potato with cinnamon and coconut oil. Really hit the spot. I could tell I needed it. That’s not a typical bedtime snack but i felt depleted in that special way that you feel when you need some more carbs. Other times I intentionally deplete my glycogen stores and don’t refuel with carbs because it felt right.

      If you still feel good and peppy, and you’re not bloating up, you’re doing fine with the carbs. If you feel cranky, irritable, low energy – try increasing.

    3. surely they didn’t have to count them. try go in the woods to pick your berries or nuts or else. before you eat enough you’ve fasted and burned a lot. they didn’ t have shops. they were more famished then we are for sure

  2. This was a really great summary of the PB!!! Printed out and now hangs on the wall. Thanks Mark!!!!

  3. So cool! What a perfect post to share with people wondering what this “primal thing” is all about! And such a wonderful illustration of how it’s about way more than a set of food rules (or a set of any “rules,” for that matter).

    Lots of fantastic guidance here…but these ones jump out at me most today:

    “Just eat plants and animals.” Yes! Doesn’t have to be complicated! Or restrictive!

    “Nature is your home.” Double yes! Brings me ease just thinking about camping, hiking, walking on earth, swimming in the sea.

    “Use your mind.” Why? Because creating is fun! It makes connections with others—and life—more inspiring and interesting.

    “Zs are valuable quarry.” Sleep is so powerfully regulating and healing…allows our body-mind’s innate wisdom to work. Getting more of it is still a place of work for me:)

  4. Perfect timing. I never know how to explain primal to my Family and Friends. Most of them do not understand. I will definitely pass this along. It is so frustrating when they talk about their health issues and I try to explain primal to them.
    I am 67 years old and do not take any meds or have any aches and pains. I follow primal and it works.
    Keep up the good work Mark.

  5. I love the way you put the tools in our hands and let us use them for ourselves, Mark.
    I eat a few carbs (potatos, 80% chocolate, fruit) but my body always warns me when i exagerate, by bloating 🙁

    1. 80% chocolate sounds like an awesome diet. I think I’ll try it!! Thanks for the tip ????

  6. “Question everything”

    Why am I usually the only one in the room who is painfully cold when everyone else is comfortable or even warm?

    Maybe the answer is where I’ve not yet looked. I eat fewer carbs and more fat….. still cold, that’s not a “fix”….. I exercise, still cold…… I’m reading about warming foods – I had “weak kidneys” as a child – Is that connected to my “cold” body?

    I’m doing an experiment now so I hope this will help me stay warm as we go into the wet, cold winter here in the Pacific Northwest – my least favorite season.

    I’m midweek into my first week and am hopeful.

    1. Please check your thyroid. A common symptom is being cold when others are normal. I used to be cold all the time. My thyroid deficiency was found during routine pregnancy blood checks. I am now on thyroid replacement . I am now warm or normal, I have notice a difference even though I had no other thyroid indications. Peace

    2. I agree that being chronically cold is a common symptom of a low-functioning thyroid. Proper treatment will help. It can be complicated.

    3. Yes, thyroid. I always, suffered from the cold, and exhaustion, and other issues. I discovered early this year that my thryroid is weak. My partner was always one of those men who burned. He lost 12 kilos when we went Primal, and… started suffering from the cold. He works outside, and last winter had chilblains on his toes for the first time ever. Again… under-productive thyroid. Now, we’re both taking a thryroid stimulant, and feeling much better for it. I no longer fear the cold!

    4. Some things just are. If you don’t have a thyroid problem and can’t find a reason why you’re cold, try taking it in stride. Hike the heat up a little and dress more warmly. Invest in a pair of down slippers. I’ve found that if my feet are warm, then I’m warm all over.

      1. Thanks Shary,
        I have been taking it in stride all these 60 years and as an “old person” (according to my son) I’m ready to explore having this NOT happen as much. I’m in pain in most public places since apparently everyplace seems to set their “hot” temp when the AC kicks in is 70 degrees. Plus, people look at me strange when I wear my winter coat inside, with the hood up. Although I’m ok with all the “you must be crazy” looks, it does get really OLD after all these years to be so uncomfortable and in pain.

    5. I will mention that I have explored the thyroid possiblity and have found it to be ok and functioning, when it doesn’t I can tell right away and take measures to get it going.

      What I am exploring now is Chinese Medicine and what it has to say about Kidney function. Very interesting and I’m planning on doing an experiment to see if there are any positive changes with my food adjustments. I may try to find a qualified person to help me tweak my experiment eventually.

      1. I too am a cold person and have had thyroid tests done that have come back normal. I am writing this in two jumpers, a scarf, gloves and a blanket – and it’s not even November yet!

        I’d be interested to hear of any of your findings. At the moment I am planning to save up for a home infrared sauna!

  7. Wow makes so much sense. I have just started reading your fitness ebook and loved this email information.

  8. I have benefited greatly from this website and I am thankful for its content. I must confess, though, at being quite discouraged by the “sit less” section. I am a 48 -year-old woman who lifts heavy things 3–4 times a week, sprints once a week and goes on long hikes when I can. I do not ride my bike to work. Nevertheless, I was feeling pretty accomplished at having woven this much into the fabric of my life. Sigh.

    1. Don’t let “perfect” be the enemy of “good!” Keep looking for those opportunities to move when they come along, and otherwise don’t worry about it (see “Avoid chronic stress,” above) 🙂

      You’re already ahead of most folks! Enjoy!

      1. Thank you for your encouraging words! Important to keep this tenet of primal living in mind as well.

  9. A great A – Z list! As a software developer consultant who often does not have control over the environment I work at (I sometimes rig things to simulate a standing desk setup using boxes etc lol) the sitting too much bullet point is my biggest weakness. I will strive to do better, good reminder of a lot of things top to bottom. I’m at home in my office and I just stood up right before clicking on this site … just in case Mark was watching me ha.

  10. Primal Blueprint should the Bible and these should be the Commandments!

    Seriously though great summary. I lost 100 lbs when I was younger. I’m in pretty good shape for my age now. I’m often asked by friends and family what diet I follow. I always say I don’t follow a diet, I follow a lifestyle. Now I can point them to this neat little summary so they can hopefully pick up your book.

    Keep the blue side up.

  11. Hey Mark, I’m 21 and I work bussing tables all day. Feel like I can’t walk normally anymore and I fear that my spine becomes imbalanced. Aside from the recommendations for my particular case, what would you recommend to the young people to keep a healthy spine in later years? Thanks!

  12. This is fantastic!

    On walking: I love the book ‘The Songlines’ by Bruce Chatwin. in the book, his time with Australian Aborigines leads him to contemplate our nomadic past. Why is it that babies are so peaceful when they are being walked?

    On keeping the mind active: my 79 year old mother is still sharp as an axe, and has always, always, done something to exercise her mind. She started studying Italian at 60. Now, she belongs to a creative writing group. She’ s no whiz, but can navigate and send emails, and I think she’s grand!

  13. Love this article. I will be printing it out. I felt missed, was the need for us to reduce the toxic burden on our bodies that modern living has foisted upon the unsuspecting public. Perhaps “question everything” plays in here. A friend of mine today said “you’ve lost trust”, and I suppose I have, when it comes to corporate products that undermine our health for profitable gain to their bank accounts…the list is long. Was this covered somehow and I missed it? Could be, it is the middle of the night and I am missing Zs…I’m not doing well on Mark’s last item on prioritizing sleep. Back to bed I go!

  14. Regarding modern medical technology, use common sense. X-rays themselves aren’t bad, but too many unnecessary xrays aren’t good. Same for CAT scans, bone scans, etc. Radiation is both cumulative and carcinogenic, so limiting your exposure to what’s absolutely necessary is a good idea.

  15. Great summary! Now when I try to explain this lifestyle to a SAD person I’ll just forward this. I just forwarded it to my mom with the caption Listen to Mark, he’s the Jack La lanne of my generation. That should get her attention.

  16. Awesomesauce! Thank you again Mark! I have made your material part of my daily enlightenment! I will share this with friends.


  17. Mark, do you think you could set this up in a printable version please? Excellent list!

  18. Mark
    I got your list of 10 esential items;
    Avacado oil
    Macadamia nuts
    Canned Salmon etc

    So I bought two cans at the store yesterday. I really enjoy our local salmon canned by Merlino’s of Westport Washington, its just great salmon and salt. So I thought canned salmon, great…until I opened the cans, one was Bumble Bee Red Salmon, YUK skin, bones, WOW. I never thought I would be as tough as Grok, but was surprised at the gross contents of that can. I then opened the other Can, Rubinstines, just as gross. Did I just stumble on the two gross cans or is it always like that?

    1. I goofed, I meant to say local Tuna canned by…Merlino’s Tuna is great it was the canned salmon that was GROSS Sorry