Is the human species excelling, or are we deteriorating? This is the question many paleontologists, scientists, and people who are interested in the evolutionary basis for human health are asking. There are certainly many upsides to living in the modern, industrialized world. However, what has become increasingly clear is that many of the things we value about our modern way of life also come with some significant costs. This is particularly true if we look at how human health and physical fitness have been affected by the replacement of a physically demanding hunter-gatherer existence with a sedentary, modern lifestyle.
The chair is slowly killing you
As everyone who’s been reading this blog and/or kept up with the research on ancestral health know, degenerative diseases such as colon cancer, acne vulgaris, type-2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease have rapidly increased in prevalence lately. These so-called diseases of civilization are now a natural part of life in the modern world; most everybody is afflicted sometime during their life, and very few people simply die of old age anymore.
However, it hasn’t always been like this. Our Paleolithic ancestors rarely, if ever, died of heart disease and cancer, and when compared to today’s average Joe, they were incredible strong and physically fit. When we completely abandon the hunter-gatherer ecological niche, as we have done in modern industrialized societies, maladaptation manifests itself as chronic disease.
One of the main reasons so many people get type-2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other chronic health disorders is that we humans have become a bunch of couch potatoes. Needless to say, one of the key things we have to do to resolve the gene-environment mismatch we face in the modern world is to get up off the chair and start moving our bodies.
When it comes to physical fitness, the typical modern man is only a faint imprint of our Pleistocene ancestors (1). Estimates suggest that hunter-gatherers’ physical activity energy expenditure was in the range of 800 to 1200 kcal per day, a number that is 3 to 5 times higher than that of modern sedentary individuals (1). We are less active today than ever before.
The problem isn’t necessarily that the average westerner has less willpower or discipline than the prehistoric man; it’s simply that we no longer need to move our bodies. The ancestral natural environment demanded a great deal of physical activity. Back then, those who weren’t physically fit enough to gather food, get away from dangerous animals, and build shelter would have been taken out of the gene pool by natural selection.
This is in stark contrast to how things are like in the modern world, where food is readily accessible, dangerous animals are a thing for the Zoo, and modern technology allows us to build comfortable homes without exhausting ourselves. We’ve essentially eliminated many of the selective pressures that sculpted the human genome for millions of years.
By looking at exercise through the lens of evolution we can learn a lot about the types of activities we should include in our exercise program, as well as the duration, intensity, volume, and frequency we should aim for. This quote from a scientific paper by Dr. Cordain and colleagues is a great summary of why knowledge about activity patterns in the Paleolithic era is valuable:
“… The portion of our genome that determines basic anatomy and physiology has remained relatively unchanged over the past 40 000 years. Thus, the complex interrelationship between energy intake, energy expenditure and specific physical activity requirements for current humans remains very similar to that originally selected for Stone Age men and women who lived by gathering and hunting. Research investigating optimal physical activity for human health and performance can be guided by understanding the evolution of physical activity patterns in our species” (2).
- Plenty of light-moderate activity such as walking, carrying, etc. On average 6 to 16 km per day!
- Hard days were typically followed by an easier day.
- Walking/running on natural surfaces (e.g., grass, sand).
- Physical activity was performed barefoot or with minimalistic footwear.
- Occasional intermittent bursts of moderate-to-high level intensity exercise with intervening periods of rest and recovery.
- Rotation among many different forms of exercise, such as strength training (e.g., lifting stones, carrying logs), endurance training, climbing, etc.
- Virtually all exercise was performed outside.
- Primitive populations usually hunt and gather in groups, rarely alone. Evidence also suggests that humans and dogs have co-evolved for as long as 135000 years. Our prehistoric ancestors could have domesticated wolves which took part in cooperative hunting.
- Dancing was often performed as a part of rituals and celebrations.
- Sexual activity has always been an essential part of human existence.
- Ample time for rest, sleep, and recovery.
How to design an exercise program that is perfect for you
As pretty much all personal trainers, coaches, and other people involved in health and fitness know, regular physical activity can provide a wide spectrum of health benefits, such as improved metabolic and cardiovascular health, increased protection against several types of chronic diseases, and enhanced bone strength. What is perhaps less known is that all of these health benefits can be traced back to the positive effects exercise has on gene expression (4, 5).
While our actual DNA sequence doesn’t change, our diet and lifestyle have a significant impact on how our genes are expressed. By making good choices throughout the day – such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator at work, going for a walk after work, and lifting some heavy objects at the gym – we can upregulate our “good” genes and turn down the ones that are involved in disease-initiating processes.
This is where a hunter-gatherer fitness style regimen really shines. It won’t get you ready for the bodybuilding stage or Tour the France, but it will positively impact gene expression and promote overall good fitness (1, 5, 6). I don’t think that emulating every aspect of the ancestral human activity pattern is necessarily the way to go, but there’s little doubt that if your goal is to optimize gene expression and enjoy robust vigorous health, you should use the evolutionary template as a guide when designing your exercise program.
It’s important to note that a hunter-gatherer type fitness regimen will make you a generalist, it will not cause a specific adaptation to one type of activity. In other words, hunter-gatherers didn’t exercise with a specific performance objective in mind, and they didn’t focus on progressive overload; they simply did what was necessary to survive.
And this is where we get into the distinction between exercise and training. As strength coach Mark Rippetoe often puts it, exercise is primarily performed for the effects it produces today, while training is performed with a long-term performance goal in mind. In other words, while exercise often features “random” exposures to a wide range of activities, training is about creating a specific adaptation.
So, if your goal is to maximize strength and/or muscular development, run a marathon, or sprint as fast as possible, training is the way to go. You can still employ many aspects of indigenous human activity patterns into your training program and use the evolutionary template as a guide for determining how to set up your program, but you should specify your training, focus on progressive overload, and in most instances, keep a training journal.
So, how can we transfer this information into some specific, practical recommendations?
For someone who simply wants to be as healthy as possible, a multifaceted fitness regimen is the perfect way to go. Include plenty of light-moderate activities such as walking, do some type of regular strength training where you focus on compound movements such as the squat, lunge, deadlift, push-up, pull-up, and press, and occasionally sprint and do HIIT. Preferably use minimalistic footwear or train barefoot, and perform some of your exercise outside if possible. Also, I think it’s important to mention that although our hunter-gatherer ancestors typically performed a wide range of physical activities, I see no problem in focusing more on specific areas.
For individuals with specific goals related to performance, aesthetics, etc., I think the key is to combine an evolutionary perspective on exercise with modern sports science and find the right balance between “random” exercise and carefully planned training.
If we use the example of someone who wants to build as much muscle and strength as possible, the main focus should be on strength training and progressive overload in a set of compound lifts. Besides these main activities, sprinting, rowing, light-moderate activities such as walking and some occasional HIIT will help optimize gene expression and confer robust health. These activities can either be performed as sporadic exercise, with little focus on progressive overload, or they can be performed as an essential component of the training program.
As I mentioned earlier, finding the right balance is the key. If you always stick to a strict program and try to add more and more weight to the bar every workout, you might end up stagnating and/or losing some of the joy of exercising. However, if you’re always messing around with different exercises and don’t keep track of your progress, you won’t get optimal results.
For strength trainees, putting “a lot” of focus on progressive overload is usually a good idea (especially in the major lifts), but including some random “pump” work, unplanned exercise sessions, etc. is also important. For individuals with other specific performance goals (e.g., aerobic endurance, sprinting) the same principles apply; the emphasis should be put on creating a specific adaptation.
One especially important thing we can learn from studying hunter-gatherers is what types of activities we are best adapted to “handle”. While our ancient ancestors certainly lifted heavy things, they never performed the 20 set chest workout some strength trainees do today. As I’ve mentioned previously on the blog, a more moderate volume and somewhat higher frequency is superior to completely destroying each muscle group once a week.
The same thing applies to aerobic exercise. Although our prehistoric ancestors often covered many kilometers per day, they rarely engaged in anything that resembles the type of aerobic training most long distance endurance athletes do today. While many people consider athletes involved in ironman, triathlon, and other extreme endurance activities to represent the peak of human health, the fact is that the type of chronic cardio that is required to perform optimally in these events is linked to adverse health effects, such as oxidative stress and increased cardiovascular risk (1).
All of this comes back to what people in the ancestral health community know; an evolutionary perspective on nutrition, exercise, health, and pretty much all other aspects of life can tell us a lot about what type of inputs that make us healthy, fit, and strong.
Now I want to hear from you: What does your exercise program look like? Do you train with a specific goal in mind – or are you primarily interested in achieving good health and overall fitness?
Picture: Creative Commons picture by PabloTorres Costa. Some rights reserved.
Note: A previous version of this article of mine appeared in Paleo Magazine, the first, and only print magazine dedicated to the Paleo lifestyle and ancestral health. You can subscribe to Paleo Magazine here!