“Hunter gatherer fitness was diverse. They were master generalists.”
The environment and lifestyle of modern humans is a space shuttle ride away from the environment and lifestyle of our hunter gatherer ancestors. This comes with many consequences as our genetic material is yet to catch up with our rapid increases in technology and alternative life ways. The result is the majority of modern humans are extremely unhealthy and are unable to efficiently navigate a non-human built environment. Not many people have the time or the desire to replicate the lifestyles of our hunter gatherer ancestors (although some do). Most however would like to experience a degree of their health and fitness. To that end we can touch upon the fitness and movements of hunter gatherers and attempt to adjust and apply them in a way that is suitable and practical for our modern lives.
The following study “Organic fitness: Physical activity consistent with our hunter gather heritage”, determines the common movements patterns of hunter gatherers. It outlines 13 fundamental elements of “organic exercise” based on how hunter gatherers moved and how they can be applied in a modern setting.
1. Lots of light to moderate activity
“A large amount of 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.”
– Most of the activity from hunter gatherers didn’t require heavy exertion. Walking seemed to be the movement that dwarfed all others in time spent. This is how the majority of hunter gatherer fitness was built. Most of us don’t have the time to complete a leisurely 6-16km walk every day. However, most of us definitely have enough time to walk more than we currently do. We could all play with our phones a little less or substitute our oil powered commute for a bipedal loco-mote. Variety is the key in becoming more adaptable.
2. Work hard, rest harder
“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 physicalactivity typically were at least 800 to 1200 kcal or about 3 to 5 times that of modern sedentary individuals.”
– Today many sports and fitness practices involve drilling the body into the exhaustion on a consistent basis. This seems to be at odds with the intensity our hunter gatherer genes were designed for. Although hunter gatherers move frequently, it was rarely until failure. Therefore, heavy days should always be followed by light days to allow for optimum recovery.
3. Go barefoot on natural terrain
“Individuals walked or ran on natural surfaces, such as grass and dirt, and often on uneven ground; our ancientancestors 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.”
– Walking barefoot or in minimalist shoes activates the joints at the correct angles. In addition to triggering the correct proportion of effort from each of the muscles that are recruited. It allows us a fuller reading of our environments. It is a reasonably long process to recondition the feet to be able to do this, but one that is worth undertaking.
4. Life is tough…….. Occasionally!
“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.”
– Life in the wild occasionally got physically uncomfortable. Not more so than pursuing evasive prey or outrunning ferocious predators. Sprinting is high intensity and is one of the movement patterns that our bodies are extremely adapted for. It yields a number of physiological and psychological benefits in a fraction of the time. High intensity training such as sprinting should only be undertaken no more than 1-2 times a week to prevent over-training and burnout.
5. Generalist not specialist
“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.”
– The most apparent element of hunter-gather fitness was that it was (and is) not geared towards any one component. Their fitness replicated their generalist lifestyle which was geared towards mobility in a variety of scenarios. This meant a range of components of fitness such as strength, endurance, flexibility (as listed in the article), as well as balance, agility, co-ordination, accuracy, speed and power were organically addressed.
It should come as no surprise that the movements and training frequencies that are most beneficial for boosting fitness and health, while mitigating injuries are kindred to the hunter gatherer generalist approach. This does not mean to say if you are a competitive athlete or a fanatical one that you should abandoned your specialization. It does however suggest that incorporating some generalist principles into your training may be beneficial for long term health. For the rest of us it offers a way to be functionally fit whilst avoiding the routine and somewhat boring programs offered in the conventional fitness world.
6. Hoist heavy objects
“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.”
– The ability to lift heavy objects creates strong muscles tendons and ligaments, addressing another component of fitness and makes us more helpful in daily in life. It also creates denser bones and prevent osteoporosis.
When possible I believe it is best to manipulate objects that are found in the natural environment for the greatest adaptable strength. Two previous articles rock lifting part 1 and part 2 describe a number of strength movements which can be done with rocks. If you are not living near a natural environment many of the exercises can be substituted with free weights. Alternatively, manipulating the body with various unloaded movements (bodyweight) is also great at building strength, particularly when performed for the upper body. As strength training breaks down the body rapidly, it should only be performed 1-3 times a week depending on your goals. Shorter sessions and not going to complete failure also seem to be more representative of how hunter gatherers moved heavy objects.
7. Healthy body weight reduces joint trauma
“In general, hunter-gatherers were lean, and probably almost never obese, which reduced trauma to their joints.”
– The obese don’t move enough which creates weaker joints and when they do they are supplying them with a monumental load. If obese undertaking natural movement should be a gradual progression to prevent calamity.
8. Natural movement – Natural environment
“Virtually all of the exercise was done outdoors in the natural world. Outdoor activities help maintain ultra-violet-stimulated vitamin D synthesis, improve mood, and facilitate adherence to a regular exercise program.”
– Movement done outdoors combines the best of two worlds. Nature has so many positive effects for the human-being as discussed in detail throughout this site. Training in an artificial environment only provides an extremely limited stimulus for the body to adapt, whereas outdoors the possibilities are endless. The sun alone would be reason enough to train outdoors.
9. Bring the tribe
“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 2+ individuals.”
– Having others to share the practice makes it more enjoyable. It promotes camaraderie and helps us to push through barriers that may have otherwise seemed unattainable. Man is a social ape and having others to share the experience with is deeply satisfying.
10. Man’s best friend
“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.”
– Dogs make great training companions. They force many people to get outdoors that otherwise wouldn’t, even if begrudgingly in the beginning. As the wolf was the first animal humans ever domesticated we have become extremely accustomed to having them around, even when training.
11. Get the party started
“Dancing was often performed as a part of rituals and celebrations, and is an ideal form of exercise that improves fitness and reduces stress.”
– Dancing has been our form of celebration since we were able to create the first beats. It allows the body to express itself freely and it makes for an entertaining social gathering. Everybody loves to dance, and those that say they don’t usually change their minds when alcohol is involved. It turns out these often bizarre set of movement patterns are also great at stimulating our co-ordination (or not in some cases) and keeping us fit at the same time.
12. Nothing but mammals
“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”
– Say no more doctor. At Survival and Serenity we take our health seriously.
“Ample time for rest, relaxation, and sleep was generally available to ensure complete recovery after strenuousexertion.”
– We don’t benefit from training. We benefit from recovery. Allowing sufficient time for rest, relaxation and sleep is paramount for both physiological and psychological recovery. Establishing a good sleeping pattern, preferably one that aligns with our genetic code is the most important aspect in optimizing the repair mechanisms for the body and mind.
Observing, adapting, and applying how our hunter gatherer ancestors moved is cardinal for ensuring our ancient genes are appropriately nourished in the modern world. This list is not exhaustive but it definitely provides a strong foundation.
“And is not the bodily habit spoiled by rest and idleness, but
preserved for a long time by motion and exercise?”
Until next time,