Fitness, hunter-gatherer style

Aché man hunting. Credit: Wiki

“So the bottom line is that foragers are often in good shape and they look it. They sprint, jog, climb, carry, jump, etc all day long but are not specialists.”

The quote above is excerpted from a description given by anthropologist Kim Hill (whose work I’ve previously written about here) of his experience observing the behaviors of the Aché of Paraguay and the Hiwi of Venezuela. The ASU professor, who has been living and studying the tribes for more than 30 years, recently had his work highlighted in a commentary published in Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases.

The article, whose lead author was James O’Keefe, MD, examines the daily physical activity patterns among hunter gatherers and fossil hominins. According to the authors, ancestral hunter-gatherers expended as much as five times more amounts of energy on physical activity than the average modern sedentary adult.

Based on data from Cordain’s earlier work and that of colleagues, the article proposes a cross-training exercise regimen, as opposed to specialized trainings of Olympic athletes, intended to mimic the way of life that is required of a typical hunter gatherer. The “prescription for organic fitness” includes 14 essential features, which the authors suggest “appear to be ideal for developing and maintaining fitness and general health while reducing risk of injury.”

Summarily, here they are:

  1.  Walk or run 3 to 10 miles a day. 
  2. After a strenuous day, take a rest day. 
  3. Take it easy on your joints. Walk or run on grass or dirt, not asphalt.
  4. Walk or run barefoot or in leather slippers. Shoes lead to injuries.
  5. Once or twice a week, do interval training. This involves short bursts of intense exercise like sprints.
  6. Focus on a variety of exercises: Weights, cardio, and stretching.
  7. Carry a child, a log, a rock. It builds muscle and bone.
  8. Stay lean. In other words, don’t eat too much. It can lead to inflammation and cause problems for your joints.
  9. Exercise outside. Take advantage of some vitamin D.
  10. Socialize while exercising. Like our ancestors did when hunting and foraging.
  11. Walk with your dog. Dogs have been a companion to man for at least 150,000 years. 
  12. Dance like a wild human.
  13. Have wild sex. 
  14. Sleep, or rest, after any of the above activities. 

It’s a no-brainer: The majority of us don’t exercise nearly as much as our ancestors did for approximately 84,000 generations as hunter-gatherers. Instead, we live sedentary lifestyles. That, combined with our high-calorie diets, is what is killing most of us. It’s why we’re obese. It’s why we have elevated blood pressure, glucose intolerance, high blood sugar, and high triglycerides. This is why we end up with metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or cancers.

Source: O’Keefe JH, Vogel R, Lavie CJ, and Cordain L. Exercise Like a Hunter-Gatherer: A Prescription for Organic Physical Fitness. Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases. 2011;53:471-9. doi:10.1016/j.pcad.2011.03.009.

Note: With exception of Hill’s description of his experience among hunter-gatherers, most of what’s in the new article is identical to what was published last year by the same authors in The Physician and Sports Medicine found here.

Published by David Despain, MS, CFS

David is a science and health writer living on Long Island, New York. He's written for a variety of publications including Scientific American, Outside Online, the American Society for Nutrition's (ASN) Nutrition Notes Daily, and Institute of Food Technologists' (IFT) Food Technology magazine and Live! blog. He's also covered new findings reported at scientific meetings including Experimental Biology, AAAS, AOCS, CASW, Sigma Xi, IFT, and others on his personal blog "Evolving Health." David is also an active member of organizations including the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the American Society for Nutrition, the Institute of Food Technologists, and the National Audubon Society. David has a master's degree in human nutrition from the University of Bridgeport, and a bachelor's degree in English from University of Illinois at Springfield. He also earned his Certified Food Scientist credential from the Institute of Food Technologists.

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