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“We have more than six million years of hunting and gathering behind us. Imagine the hominid predicament on the grassland and adjust your movement style accordingly.” Frank Forencich, Play as if Your Life Depends on It (GoAnimal, 2003)
Bible of Evolutionary Fitness
Primal, Practical, Playful
The concept of evolutionary fitness holds that the activity and eating patterns of ancient man provide the blueprint for modern-day health and fitness. It has wide appeal, because it makes sense. Genetically we are still hunters and gatherers.
In 2000, we posted an article about Professor Arthur De Vany and his forthcoming book Evolutionary Fitness. The book has yet to appear, but we still get regular inquiries, which we direct to De Vany’s well traveled website: http://www.arthurdevany.com/
While reading Scott McCredie’s book Balance, I discovered a book by Frank Forencich, published in 2003, called Play as if Your Life Depends on It. Forencich has written a comprehensive and wonderful book. For now, I believe it deserves the title Bible of Evolutionary Fitness—not for archaeological detail, but for the innovative, flexible, and common sense way it connects us to our origins.
Forencich is an excellent writer. He does a superb job explaining complex subjects. He sometimes tells more than I needed or wanted to know—he leaves very few rocks unturned—but he does it extremely well.
I’d like to briefly review and comment on two areas where I believe he hit the ball out of the park: the primal diet and activity pattern.
The Primal Diet
What did our ancient ancestors eat? The truth is that we can’t say for sure. It almost certainly varied from time to time and place to place.
The short answer, says Forencich, is “whatever they could.” Their primary challenge was simply “getting enough calories to stay alive.”
“We are omnivores,” Forencich writes, “and that as much as anything is the key to our evolutionary success. We are here today because…we can eat almost anything.”
Most humans probably ate some combination of plants and meat or fish. The evidence suggests that we were not designed to subsist on a single, optimal diet, according to Forencich. “There are undoubtedly some foods that we should avoid,” however. For example, we probably should avoid eating “large quantities of saturated fat and [refined] carbohydrates.”
We know that most primates are vegetarian, and that we share that heritage to some degree. We certainly ate whatever plants we could find. Beyond that, Forencich says, experts believe that our ancestors did eat meat on occasion; some ate more than others. “Our smaller, early [ancestors] were largely vegetarian, but may have scavenged some meat,” Forencich states. “It is a certainty that we ate roots, berries, fruits and nuts. Other primates eat these things routinely. Later, our larger, more contemporary, ancestors may have eaten little else but meat.” It was a far cry from the meat most of us eat today, however.
Fat was hard to come by. “This is not difficult to understand,” says Forencich. “Wild game meats are low in fat, considerably leaner than today’s beef cattle; fat must’ve been a great delicacy.”
Ancient man chowed down on fresh, sugary fruit—when it was available. “But such abundance would have been highly seasonal and certainly not part of the daily fare,” Forencich relates. Needless to say, “there was no bread, no pasta, no jellies, cakes, cookies or soft-drinks.”
“The Paleolithic diet, if anything, was probably a slow-burn program with a low glycemic index,” Forencich asserts. There was little or no fast-absorbing foods “that would cause radical insulin swings and metabolic flame-out.”
“Unfortunately, we seem to be moving in the other direction,” Forencich laments. “Given [our] dramatic increase in total calories derived from sugar and sugar-like substances [such as corn syrup], it comes as no surprise that we see an increase in adult-onset diabetes” and other metabolic disorders.
Forencich has a lot more to say about our ancestral diet, but I’ve given you enough to demonstrate his straightforward, common sense take on what worked then and what is likely to work now.
Let’s move on to physical activity.
Primal Activity Pattern
One thing we know for sure: Our primal ancestors didn’t use stopwatches, and they didn’t count sets and reps. Think rhythm or activity patterns.
What did they do from day to day?
Forencich says primitive man lived a “high contrast” life. They worked very hard, and then rested. “Hunting is hard work,” he writes. “You may have to push it really hard for a couple of days to lay in a good supply of meat. Add in some river crossings, predator encounters and navigational errors and you’ve got a [high intensity] challenge.”
“When you get back to camp, you’re going to want to do what comes naturally,” he continues. “You’re going to sit under a tree and relax.”
This hard-easy activity pattern is built into our genes. “[It] must have been repeated with variation millions of times throughout our history,” Forencich writes. It’s what we’re born to do. And it’s a proven formula for athletic success.
“An essential part of being a good animal is establishing a cycle of activity and rest that is appropriate for your species, your age and the conditions you live in,” Forencich writes. “From a coach’s point of view, the Paleolithic hunters and gatherers were following an ideal pattern for athletic excellence as well as general health.” When you train, train hard—and then take a few days off for rest and recovery.
The book contains many more details on evolutionary fitness training—far too many to cover here—but here’s the core principle: “Without some sort of active, mechanical challenge, the body stops reinforcing the musculoskeletal system and weakness and injury result. Your life literally depends on movement.”
Let’s close with a look at a form of primal training that will appeal to just about everyone.
Frank Forencich challenges us to be good animals. “We are animals,” he says, “and it’s about time we got good at it.”
“Do your living and your playing outdoors whenever possible,” he urges. Get out.
“Giving up our wilderness has given us great comforts, knowledge and amusements,” he writes, “but it has been disastrous for our bodies.”
“One hour of hiking on a rocky trail,” Forencich insists, “is worth ten hours on the treadmill.” That may be a bit of a stretch, but I believe him when he says that hiking makes your nervous system smarter—especially if you “do lots of hills, and train on many different types of terrain,” as he suggests.
That gave me some ideas.
I’ve added a new wrinkle to my regular walks in and around our neighborhood. I’ve started detouring off the sidewalk to walk on rocky areas, cut across the grassy area of parks, and undeveloped fields. I’ve also started walking on curbs, which are about as wide as a balance beam—but a lot closer to the ground. (Putting your hands in your pockets makes the balance more challenging.) I’ve even got Carol walking on the rocks; she draws the line at curb walking, however.
I’ve always enjoyed walking, but my little detours have added an invigorating new element—and my nervous system does seem to be responding. Like any new stress, however, it’s wise to start slowly. Too much, too soon can setoff alarm bells in your back, knees and other vulnerable parts of the body.
Another cautionary note: I’m careful not to make a spectacle of myself, and I don’t walk on other people's yards. Frank says “be willing to be weird.” True, but you don't have to make a nuisance of yourself.
I’m also exploring some new areas in the foothills above our house. I found a challenging new (to me) gap behind a mountain I’ve climbed many times. With this gap, I now have four approaches to a scenic highpoint on the mountain. Going up these rough trails is like doing the Cooper Clinic treadmill test four different ways; the trails start up gradually and get steeper and steeper, culminating in very steep stretches. It’s 25 minutes (more or less, depending on the trail) from our front door to the top. Believe me, testing yourself on these trails is a heck of a lot more stimulating and fun than walking and running to exhaustion on a treadmill—while staring at the wall.
Thanks to inspiration from Frank Forencich, I’m finding new challenges in foothills where ancient man walked, hunted—and played—eons ago. It’s like training in God’s laboratory.
Read Frank’s book Play as if Your Life Depends on It and his book of essays, Exuberant Animal, published in 2006. You’ll be glad to did.
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