A Paleolithic Approach to Exercise

A simple look back at the lifestyles of our ancestors can tell us a great deal about the way that our bodies function. Observation of their daily habits and their responses to stress provide insight into how “modern man” should eat and exercise. To best understand this correlation, it is best to take a look into the “Paleolithic man’s” way of life. Our forebears led a rather simplistic, but not easy, life. The stresses of the environment were relatively well established and the response to those various burdens was rather straightforward as well. As this discussion will focus on the merits of implementation of sound science based exercise principles, attention will be given to the type of activity that was carried out by our ancestors.

However, many Paleolithic principles hold true for dietary choices as well. The “hunter-gatherer” characterization best defines the lifestyle of the Paleolithic man. Prior to the type of structured agricultural practices, food was not readily available. This required that it be sought after on a daily basis. Two options existed as food sources. The first were those that could be picked and gathered such as fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts from trees and seeds. The act of picking foods was a relatively slow paced activity that required constant, but not strenuous effort.

In opposition, the second form of food collection required fast, high intensity movements to pursue game in an effort to catch a fleeting animal. This lead to collecting a large bounty of game such as wild animals, including those now consider more domesticated and various fish species. The point is that the Paleolithic man for nearly all aspects of life performed activities at polar ends of the spectrum. You were either moving at a relatively low constant intensity or you were performing at your maximal efforts. At no point was there a rationale to support moderate activity on a routine basis. This is the picture of who we all derived from regardless of our origins. The question though is how does this fit into our current model of exercise and deriving the most out of it.

Before delving any further into how to carry out an exercise routine, it is prudent to examine the reason for implementing a program and to understand what the objectives of a routine should be. Exercise programs should have the goal of helping to maintain the biochemical and structural health of the body while providing a level of strength that allows one to carry out daily activities without fear of injury. All too often exercise is recommended or taken part in without regard to these goals. Just take a look around a gym and notice the poor form that is often used to attempt to move a weight that in reality is too heavy. Or likewise, notice the loss of the smooth, fluid motion of some runners as they get further into their run. Form is sacrificed at the extent of being able to go longer. And better yet, do you ever wonder about some of the exercise recommendations that you hear? Are these really fact, someone’s opinion, or just plain myth? It has even been as plainly stated as calories in equals calories out. You are lead to believe that if you balance this simple equation you can master weight loss. In actuality, we know this is not the case. Moreover, the science behind the biochemical and physiological makeup of our bodies shows that we are more complicated.

The best place to start with developing an exercise program is to understand that regardless of opinion, the facts are the facts. I bring this to your attention because by sticking with what is scientifically validated, we are better able to whisk through that which is opinion and that which is creditable information. If you find that after reading this that many of the concepts that you hold about exercise are challenged, then you are probably on the right track. Better yet, challenge yourself by implementing some of these principles for yourself.

Do begin challenging common knowledge, let’s explore the biochemical side of exercise. This is best done by going back to the Paleolithic man who engaged in low intensity or high intensity activity, but not sustained moderate intensity activity such as running extended distances. How the Paleolithic man inherently lived is now known through archaeological study. When you engage in any activity, your body perceives this to be a stressor. To accommodate to a challenge, the body rises to the occasion by secreting a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol serves a useful role in that it supports energy production by breaking down glucose, fat and muscle stores. While initially this may seem good, over the long term it becomes problematic as muscle stores become sacrificed at the expense of trying to maintain activity.

Herein lies the dramatic difference between moderate and high intensity activity. Moderate intensity activity only promotes the secretion of those hormones which are known as catabolic, or breaking things down in nature. The most problematic aspect of this is the loss of muscle tissue. Muscle tissue serves to protect our body in many ways, including stabilizing joints, acting as a balancer of blood glucose, and increasing our resting metabolic rate. In fact, studies have shown that the more muscle tissue we have as we age, the more gracefully we will age. Moreover, moderate intensity activity shows little sustained benefit of burning calories after discontinuation of the activity. This is likely due to the inherent wisdom of the body recognizing that continued secretion of cortisol would continue to catabolize muscle stores.

However, not all secretion of cortisol is bad, especially when it is coupled with the secretion of the muscle building and fat burning hormones growth hormone and testosterone. This is exactly the response secondary to high intensity activity such as sprinting and challenging weight training. To promote muscle growth and fat burning, you have to engage in activity that supports the release of anabolic hormones such as growth hormone and testosterone. To visualize this, take note of the body make up of an Olympic long distance runner in comparison to that of an Olympic sprinter. The long distance runner has a wasted appearance, is usually relatively thin, and has little muscle tissue. The sprinter on the other hand has defined muscle structure and little body fat. The vast difference in the physical makeup of the two athletes is the result of differences in hormonal secretions.

At this point you may ask where low intensity activity plays a role and how it affects the body. To best illustrate the role of low intensity activity, it is best to examine the ultimate in low intensity activity, sleep. Few would argue that the body is in a more relaxed, calm state than when asleep. Sleep is the ultimate time where the resources of the body are not going towards performing the activities of the day and dealing with the environment, but are rather going towards the repair of various tissues. The importance of rest is best noted by examining the cycle of recovery after exercise. Post exercise it takes the body 24 hours to recover from the activity. From this point it takes another 24 hours to rebuild from the activity. In total, that is 48 hours that the body needs to take full advantage of the biochemical and physical shifts that have taken place. What happens if you are exercising for extended periods of time everyday? Foremost, you never take advantage of the rebuilding phase. This important part of the cycle is what allows progression in a routine where you build more muscle and become stronger. Avoiding such a routine almost eliminates the possibility of overtraining. To liken this to our Paleolithic ancestors, we have to remember that all of their actions were geared around survival. When the hunt was over and the game had been taken, food was eaten and the need to immediately go out and repeat the process did not exist as there would have most likely been enough to last for multiple meals. Only intermittently did the Paleolithic man need to perform a high intensity activity to sustain life. The rest of the time he was engaging in lower intensity activity such as foraging for food. Most importantly, when the sun went down and darkness covered the earth, the only option was to sleep. The lack of artificial light that we have all grown accustomed to allowed Paleolithic man to routinely get enough sleep.

Now that we have explored the biochemical side of exercise we will now crossover into the physical side. In keeping with our idea of Paleolithic principles as fundamentals, we will center on the notion that the activities that we are to focus on are to support health and maintain practicality for the majority of the population. This does not mean that this information will apply to every individual, but it is a sound starting point from which to build for most.

To begin, let’s look at the concept of prehabilitation. This may seem like a misspelling of the term rehabilitation, but indeed it is a real theory in determining what activities to incorporate into an exercise program. While most are familiar with rehabilitation as the systematic application of exercises to support recovery from an injury, prehabilitation focuses to prevent the onset of injuries. If you spend any time around an athletic field, it doesn’t take long to realize that with the territory of sports come injuries. These injuries are too often the lack of or improper preparation and can happen to the average person trying to just stay healthy as easily as they can to a high intensity athlete. Prehabilitation should focus on developing all of the muscles of the body and not focusing on only a few muscles. Limiting the exercises that are performed sets the stage for overuse injuries and development of muscular imbalances from the front side of the body to the posterior side, upper to lower, as well as left to right. The goal of any basic fitness program should be to universally develop the body, not just a few areas. This is one of the key reasons to incorporate movements that are consistent with the activities that we perform everyday. As an example, the performance of a squat incorporates muscles in the proper ratios that would be consistent with bending down and picking up an object from a lower position. This does not mean that other leg exercises should not be performed, but more so that exercises such as the squat that utilize several muscle groups should be the focus as opposed to those that isolate individual muscles.

The next question to answer when looking at exercises to incorporate is whether or not the exercise physiologically makes sense. This means does the exercise mimic the natural range of motion of the joints and keep it from overextending its normal limits. The performance of exercises within the normal range of motion of the joint is critical in that it prevents the rupture or tearing of cartilaginous and muscle tissue which may ultimately lead to strain and sprain type injuries. The prevailing thought when exercising should be to perform a motion that is natural to the body with resistance or at a pace faster than is typical. Pushing a dumbbell overhead or sprinting comes to mind as examples. Pushing a dumbbell overhead would equate to reaching up in a closet or the pantry and placing an object on a shelf. Performance of movements that are done under resistance or at a fast pace with incorrect technique place the joints at the greatest risk. To better illustrate this point, let’s return to the idea of pressing something over your head. When you typically do this, do you place the object in front of your face and lift upwards where you have more control and better stability with your elbows in front of you or do you place the object behind your head with your elbows flared out to your side and then lift? Common sense says that you lift from the front side of the body. But how often do individuals pick up a bar or dumbbell to attempt to develop the shoulders and place the elbows out to the side of the body. Performance of an overhead press in this manner significantly stresses the anterior or front portion of the shoulder joints and places the head in a forward leaning position promoting a state of imbalance. If the motion feels unnatural and awkward, there is a strong chance that it is not within the normal physiological movements of the body. It should be kept in mind that this is different from the normal exertional feelings of exercise.

So now that we know that we should select exercises that are going to prevent injury and be consistent with our normal biomechanical movements, the question becomes how to carry out those movements. There are many different theories on the application of exercise, but remember, we are sticking with what we are able to support with research. As one of the goals for the average person applying an exercise program should be to develop their strength and lean muscle tissue, we want to revisit the view of exercise affecting hormones. We have already noted that longer duration activity breaks down muscle tissue by causing the secretion of cortisol whereas higher intensity activity works in opposition by supporting the release of the anabolic or building hormones growth hormone and testosterone. It should be mentioned at this point for ladies not to be overly concerned about developing big muscles as the amount of hormone secreted will not support this process, but will rather aid in the toning and firming process. The key to releasing these hormones properly is to make sure that you maximize your intensity. Intensity is relative to each individual. The maximum intensity of a 20 year old female will appear much different than that of an 80 year old female. It does not mean that both are not putting forth their greatest effort, it simply means that the variables which affect the overall task being performed, in this case age, will lead to different outcomes. Therefore, we use effort as a gauge of intensity. As effort increases, intensity concurrently increases. (Effort = Intensity) If you are putting forth your best effort and working at 100% of your ability, you are certainly in a high intensity range for you. How long can you go at 100% intensity? Not long. As an illustration, picture yourself running as fast as you can or doing any activity as fast as you can. You would only be able to sustain a pace consistent with 100% of your ability for a limited period of time. Most individuals would go less than 30 seconds for many activities and certainly less than 60 seconds. To respond to an activity, the muscle tissue of the area being worked will follow Henneman’s Size Principle of Muscle Fiber Recruitment, meaning that the muscle will only recruit those fibers necessary to perform the task at hand and no more. You only work what you need to do get the job done. Therefore to make the muscle develop, placing a significant challenge on the muscle is necessary. This does not mean that you have to be at 100% intensity at all times or work to failure to maintain high intensity. It does mean that you must be putting forth your best effort. Completing exercises, especially resistance oriented exercises such as lifting machine or free weights or using body weight to challenge yourself, are equally beneficial when performed at near maximal intensities, meaning about 75%+ of your greatest effort. In fact, it is probably more beneficial for maintaining balanced hormones and continued muscle develop if maximal intensities and working to failure are not reached at every workout. Remember that intensities can be manipulated in many ways. You can lift more weight, lift the weight for more repetitions, perform the activity at varied paces such as lifting a weight slower, perform more sets, varying your rest periods, etc. By working in this manner you continue to benefit maximally from both the activity itself and the recovery phase.

In concluding the physical portion, one question that is routinely presented is, “How am I supposed to develop cardiovascular or aerobic fitness when I don’t run or perform a traditional cardiovascular type movement for a long period of time”. The answer to this question is most easily supported by an article printed in the Journal of Physiology (586:151-160) concluding that continuous anaerobic training improved aerobic fitness. To illustrate this conclusion, ask yourself when the last time you saw an Olympic sprinter that had poor aerobic function. They just don’t exist.

When beginning a workout program, the idea of not knowing what to do can seem daunting. If you keep in mind a few core concepts derived from the “Paleolithic Principles”, the ability to implement a routine that is both physically and biochemically sound will be much easier. This will permit you to put into practice activities that are both effective and scientifically founded allowing you to excel past others that continue to be stuck in the same old myths and folklore that produce less optimal outcomes.