Run, Jump and Boogie like a Caveman
If you’ve just stumbled randomly on this article you’re probably wondering right now, “What! Why would I want to run, jump or ‘boogie’ like a caveman?”
When it comes to getting in shape, you wouldn’t train a dog like a dolphin by getting it to swim endless laps of a pool. You wouldn’t train a horse like a monkey by getting it to climb trees. And you wouldn’t train a monkey by chasing it round a track. In fact you probably won’t train these animals at all unless you were looking to start some kind of freaky dog/dolphin/monkey circus.
If you sincerely wanted them to be healthy, happy and well, you’d just let them do their animal thing, confident in the knowledge that just being themselves in their own way will bring the best out of them.
While you can of course force an animal or indeed, a human to do activities that don’t fall inside their natural repetoir (go into any gym or zoo if you want to see this in action), the benefits to be gained are marginal when compared to allowing an animal or a human to live a natural life and allowing their fitness levels to develop from the inside out, without any forcing.
Every animal has a specific sort of activity and range of movement patterns that come naturally to them. It’s the same with humans. All we need to do is let ourselves do our human thing.
The sad fact is though, humans have forgotten how to move how humans should.
So what would ‘humans, doing their thing’ look like? This BBC video will give you some idea. Here we see a tribe deep in the jungle pursuing the sorts of physical activity that humans have done for millennia.
Once you picked your jaw up from the mad wooden tree house, did you notice the serious absence of fat, weak immobile humans in this video? Even the youngest and oldest member of this tribe can climb tree that we would only gaze up at in fear.
Our most accurate indicator of how ancient humans lived comes from anthropologists who have gone and lived with modern hunter-gatherer tribes. Their first-hand accounts of people living an unchanged existence essentially since Paleolithic times shine a bright light on what our ancestors would have got up to day-to-day.
Dr. Kim Hill, an anthropologist at Arizona State University has spent 30 years living with and studying the Ache hunter-gatherers of Paraguay and the Hiwi foragers of South-western Venezuela. He got to know them pretty well and his investigations represent a rare first-hand glimpse into the activity that would have been required of us all, were it not for modern industry and the Agricultural Revolution.
Although we can never be 100% sure how the European, Middle Eastern and eventually modern North American African descendants lived, we can be fairly sure that it wouldn’t have been a million miles away from these present-day South American cousins.
So with this all this day-to-day wandering, carrying and occasional chasing we can come up with good assumptions about what we were up to thousands of years ago.
From reading Dr Kim’s detailed accounts of life in the jungle, the following points seem to be the most important.
- Hunting was mostly about searching: they did not do hour upon hour of effortful running.
- Sometimes, but not every day, they would put in short bursts of hard efforts to catch their prey. (He notes that the Ache’s day, which he describes so vividly, was harder than any other tribe he visited and that these high levels of effort were not actually the norm.)
- The Hiwi and most of the other tribes he studied would usually have a whole day off after high intensity efforts to recover. Rainfall too would sometimes force any tribe to curtail their efforts and probably stay in camp. There was plenty of time for rest, recovery and socializing.
- The hunter-gatherers movements were highly varied to match the terrain: “…ducking under low branches and vines about once every 20 seconds…and climbing over fallen trees, moving through tangled thorns”.
- The members frequently had to lift and carry objects on their expeditions and around their camp, so strength was a vital asset.
- The terrain under foot was uneven so each footfall would have been much harder than a stroll through the park or a high street.
Ancient movements to modern practice
Just as for modern hunter-gatherers, it’s clear that in past millennia we would have had to move a whole lot more. There were no cars to save the shoe leather, no supermarkets with copious food, no ‘click of a mouse’ ordering online, no easy desk jobs, etc. So life was made up of both sustained, low-effort movements (for example, walking from one hunting ground to another) and the sort of explosive movements necessary to either catch prey or avoid becoming it.
From this brief insight into the movements of a modern day hunter-gatherer we can learn some broad principles on which we can begin to base our own programme.
- is based around easy, sustainable aerobic work (walking is fine!).
- contains some regular lifting movements to maintain strength and muscle mass (for women as well as men). You don’t need to do this every day. Two or three times a week is sufficient.
- is built around real human movement patterns, not artificial ones created by machines in a gym. Include plenty of squatting, ducking, crawling, jumping, running, throwing, lunging, pulling and lifting.
- includes some high-intensity efforts like sprinting, but only a handful of times a week.
- alternates easy days and harder days most of the time, taking a day off when you genuinely feel tired or under the weather.
The lifestyle of modern day hunter-gatherer tribes are an accurate representation of the lives hominids lived for 99.6% of our time on this planet.
The tribes mentioned above live lives of continual relaxed, varied movement, interspersed with brief, frantic bursts of energy, followed by long periods of relaxation. By contrast, our days are filled with large quantities of sitting, tiny amounts of movement, regular carb-filled meals, and chronic stress. When we look at it like this, it really isn’t hard to see how so many of us have gone wrong.