Healthy Living is So Easy, a Caveman Can Do It!

July 13th, 2009

EvolutionAlthough we enjoy many of the great benefits that have resulted from the advancement of modern society, it has significantly changed the way we live, and in many ways, is having very unfortunate effects on our health and quality of life.

With the many conveniences of modern society, most of us have completely lost touch with the basic lifestyle habits that our ancestors followed and evolved on for more than 2 million years. As a result, we also tend to underestimate the intelligence of nature and the important lifestyle factors that allowed many of our ancestors to be lean, strong, happy, and healthy well into their old age.

What is a Primal Lifestyle?

Many people who are proponents of natural and holistic health, including myself, strive to live a lifestyle that promotes optimal health by combining principles of evolution with the advantages of modern civilization. Evolutionary principles are critical to our health because they promoted the survival of our prehistoric ancestors for more than 2 million years, and as such, have significantly influenced how the body functions today. Many of these principles are the foundation of a healthy lifestyle and implementing them while still benefiting from certain aspects of modern technology allows us to maximize our health and quality of life more so than ever.

Don’t Be Misled by Life Span

Many people question the value of a primal lifestyle based on the belief that prehistoric man lived a tortured life and rarely lived past 30 years of age. While our primitive ancestors did indeed have a much shorter life span, this was greatly influenced by infant mortality, infection, and debilitating accidents, all of which have been greatly reduced by modern advancement. As such, the brief life span of our ancestors was not a result of their daily lifestyle habits. In fact, most of their habits are what allowed them to survive the incredible challenges that they faced.

Studies of existing primitive cultures that live without the advancement of modern technology have shown numerous cases of individuals living into their 70s and 80s with much better health and capability than modernized people of the same age. Furthermore, many of the chronic diseases that are so prevalent today, such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and autoimmune disease, barely even existed in these cultures. In fact, these diseases were much less prevalent in our own modernized culture just a century ago.

The Primal Blueprint and its 10 Laws of Primal Living

Much of what I know about the habits of our prehistoric ancestors and how they relate to modern health is the culmination of a lot of reading and having to piece together information from various resources. The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson is one of the most well rounded resources that I’ve come across on this subject and I wish it was available years ago because it addresses nearly all aspects of a healthy lifestyle from a single perspective.

As an athlete, I’m deeply interested in the correlation between fitness, performance, and optimal health. Since few fitness experts truly understand optimal health, and few natural health experts truly understand fitness, it’s rare to find an author that discusses both. Through his experience as a professional endurance athlete and a personal trainer, Mark knows a thing or two about exercise. As such, I thoroughly enjoyed reading his perspective on fitness, how it relates to health, and how it’s influenced by the habits of our ancestors.

The following are The Primal Blueprint’s 10 foundational laws for living a healthy lifestyle based on evolutionary principles.

1. Eat Lots of Plants and Animals

Nutrition is arguably the most important aspect of a healthy lifestyle. The dietary choices we make at each meal determine how well we can support the repair and function of the trillions of cells that we depend on. For millions of years, we’ve relied on natural whole foods such as meat, fish, fruit, and vegetables to provide this support. However, with the advent of food processing, we eat much less of these foods and have become much more susceptible to chronic disease and poor health.

Modern farming methods have changed the nutritional content of the food we eat, and as a result, simply choosing whole foods isn’t enough. To enjoy the same nourishing benefits of whole foods that our ancestors thrived on for millions of years, it’s important to choose pasture raised meat, wild fish, and organic produce which typically contain much higher nutrient levels and are not exposed to toxic chemicals.

The combination of new food processing capabilities and the influence of capitalism has resulted in a wide variety of great tasting foods that aren’t so great for our health. Although these foods can be a major obstacle to making healthy choices, we can still enjoy them in reasonable moderation without it impacting our health much. This is a great example of how the primal lifestyle incorporates the best of both worlds.

2. Avoid Poisonous Things

Although much of The Primal Blueprint is based on a less structured and regimented philosophy, strictly avoiding all grain based foods is strongly emphasized throughout the book. Grains have only been part of our diet since the advent of agriculture about 10,000 years which is not nearly long enough for us to have fully adapted to them. In fact, research has associated a decrease in height, brain size, and life span with this transition to a grain based agricultural diet. There’s also evidence of impaired growth, weaker bones, altered facial structures leading to malocclusion, and an increase in tooth decay and tooth loss.1-4

While there’s evidence of some primitive cultures doing well with properly prepared whole grains in their diet, the recommendation to completely avoid them is mostly based on blood sugar fluctuation and gluten intolerance, both of which can cause significant health problems. Furthermore, grains promote the excessive carbohydrate consumption that is a major cause of weight gain.

It’s also important to avoid processed foods, which includes most foods that are grain based, because the vegetable oils, sugar, denatured fats, and chemical additives that most of them contain promote dysfunction and are bad for your health. Fortunately, basing your diet on natural whole foods has the effect of automatically eliminating processed foods.

Although not included in The Primal Blueprint, it’s also important to avoid water and personal care products that contain toxic chemicals. Each day we’re exposed to a large number of chemicals that have been in existence for less than a century. They were obviously not a part of our evolution and can cause significant health problems by accumulating in the body. Although it would likely do more harm than good to stress out about chemical exposure, you can minimize your risk by drinking filtered water and using natural personal care products. The Environmental Working Group offers plenty of information on both subjects including a database of toxicity risks for most popular personal care products.

3. Move Frequently at a Slow Pace

We all know that exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle, but too many people exhaust themselves with excessive aerobic exercise to compensate for their diet. This is a major burden that wears down the body, suppresses the immune system, can lead to adrenal fatigue, and in turn, cause a variety of health problems.

While our prehistoric ancestors were clearly active, it’s unlikely that they were active for long periods of time at a consistently high intensity. They had no reason to regularly run long distances at a 6 minute or even 10 minute mile pace. The majority of their physical activity was most likely walking, hiking, gathering, and doing manual labor.

The Primal Blueprint suggests 2 to 5 hours per week of low intensity aerobic exercise which is probably much less than what our ancestors did. Walking, hiking, or easy cycling are all good forms of low intensity aerobic exercise and should be done at a heart rate of 50% to 75% of maximum. Athletes who are concerned about losing explosiveness or quickness due to transitional muscle fiber conversion may benefit from staying in the lower end of this range.

4. Lift Heavy Things

Our ancestors developed strength and resilience from carrying heavy animal carcasses, building shelter, hauling supplies, and engaging in other forms of strenuous manual labor. Fortunately, you can enjoy the same benefits in a much more convenient fashion by including strength training in your exercise routine. By improving your strength, you’ll improve your physical capabilities, be more resistant to injury, maintain ideal body weight more easily, improve your vitality, and slow down the aging process. However, too much strength training can wear down the body and cause health problems just like excessive cardio.

Primal Blueprint recommends a relaxed and enjoyable approach to strength training that is based more on your energy level and spontaneity than a strict and regimented program. In short, focus on promoting functional strength rather than useless bulk by using real life movements that incorporate multiple joints such as squats, deadlifts, and chin ups. Avoid doing the same routine over and over and limit yourself to just a few workouts per week that are each less then an hour in duration. If you’re pressed for time, you can even benefit from a couple of intense 10 to 15 minute strength workouts per week.

Although I typically tend to do things in a regimented fashion, I’ve recently embraced this more spontaneous style of exercising out of necessity and think it’s great. However, I think elite athletes and people wanting to maximize strength gains will achieve better results with a slightly more structured program.

5. Sprint Once in a While

The survival of our prehistoric ancestors was dependent on the explosiveness and speed that enabled them to hunt and flee from danger. This intense activity helped them stay strong, lean, quick, vibrant, and healthy. Today, we can enjoy the same benefits by periodically doing short bursts of intense activity. This is often referred to as interval training and is an excellent way to increase your fitness, lose weight, and improve your health all at the same time. Interval training provides many benefits that are similar to strength training. It also keeps you burning calories for hours after your workout, improves your quickness, and even improves your aerobic capacity.

The Primal Blueprint recommends doing intervals of 8 to 60 seconds each with a rest duration and number of repetitions that is appropriate for your current fitness level. Because interval training is a significant physiological burden, it’s best to limit this type of training to once per week and reserve it for days when you have plenty of energy. In fact, you can even benefit from doing interval training only once per month!

Interval training can be done in multiple forms including running, cycling, stair climbing, and even on cardio machines. Whichever style you choose, just be sure to match it with your ability level. If you’re older or out of shape, simply walking quickly up a hill or inclined treadmill for 30 seconds might be all you need.

6. Get Adequate Sleep

Sleep is an essential part of excellent health because it gives the body a chance to recover from the burdens of daily living. Throughout our evolution, we developed a circadian rhythm that corresponds to the rising and setting of the sun. As such, these are the most natural times for us to wake up and go to bed. However, the fast pace of modern life and the invention of artificial light has enticed us to follow an irregular sleep schedule and sleep much less than our ancestors.

Although we each have unique sleep requirements, I think 8 hours per night is a good guideline to start with. To ensure that you’re able to fall asleep easily, awake comfortably, and get a quality night of sleep, it’s also important to follow good sleep habits. This includes following a consistent sleep schedule, establishing a relaxing bedtime routine, keeping your bedroom as dark as possible, and avoiding stimulation from television, computer use, and bright lights before bed. The Primal Blueprint also suggests taking advantage of 20 to 30 minute naps when needed.

7. Play

Modern life is so fast paced and filled with stress that few of us make time to partake in leisure activities, bond with our families, and simply smile and act silly. In fact, many of us go out of our way to favor a serious demeanor and suppress our appetite for fun and humor.

Even though our prehistoric ancestors lived very difficult lives, it’s believed that they spent a significant amount of time enjoying themselves and bonding with each other. Modern day primitive cultures spend far less time working than we do and enjoy much more leisure time. After all, they don’t need to worry about paying for a house and car that exceed their needs. Even many of today’s modernized cultures spend less time working and more time enjoying themselves than we do in the United States.

Research has shown playful leisure time to improve self confidence, social skills, creativity, sense of humor, perceived quality of life, and promote a more positive outlook. As such, it’s in your best interest to make time for enjoyable activities. A great way to push yourself in this direction is to surround yourself with positive and fun loving people.

8. Get Adequate Sunlight

Our prehistoric ancestors spent a significant amount of time in the warm sun with little clothing. Today, we spend most of our time indoors and intentionally avoid the sun to prevent skin cancer. Although there may be important aspects of sun exposure that we have yet to discover, we know that it’s the most natural and reliable source of vitamin D. Despite the concerns regarding skin cancer, vitamin D controls more than 10% of our genes, and ironically, vitamin D deficiency actually increases the risk of cancer.

Although it’s possible to get vitamin D from a supplement, it’s best to get it from the sun as nature intended, and that means getting an adequate amount of natural sun exposure on a regular basis without sunscreen. The amount of exposure you need will depend on the darkness of your skin. A few specific things you can do to reduce your chances of developing skin cancer are to avoid sunburn, make sure you have plenty of high quality saturated and omega-3 fats in your diet, and avoid using toxic personal care products on your skin.

If you’re going to be in the sun for longer than you can tolerate, the safest choice is to protect yourself with clothing, and if that’s not possible, use a natural sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB radiation.

9. Avoid Stupid Mistakes

For our prehistoric ancestors, the slightest lapse in judgment could have resulted in them becoming dinner for a hungry animal or led to an injury leaving them unable to hunt and flee from danger. As such, we’ve evolved to have a sense of hypervigilance that prevents us from making such lapses in judgment. However, the convenience of modern society, particularly in regard to a sometimes excessive emphasis on safety, often eliminates our need to be hypervigilant and can make us more prone to accidents.

The Primal Blueprint includes a few examples of people who have earned the infamous Darwin Award for eliminating themselves from the gene pool by doing something extremely stupid. One of the examples is a man who survived a 160 foot drop off of Niagara Falls on a jet ski, but died because he didn’t know how to swim and wasn’t wearing a life jacket. In short, if you want to enjoy a long, healthy, and rewarding life, don’t do anything stupid to jeopardize it!

10. Use Your Brain

We each have an innate need to be creative and the fulfillment we all want from life depends on it. Ironically, many of us overstimulate ourselves each day with a long and stressful list of mundane tasks that fail to inspire any real creativity. Our ancestors didn’t have these distractions and had many hours to be creative and reflect on their lives.

The Primal Blueprint brings attention to the challenges faced by wealthy adolescents who have little incentive to apply themselves and often live a troubled life. In contrast, many people are suffering through jobs they hate to pay their bills. If you don’t love your job, what would you be doing instead if money weren’t a concern? I personally think this question underscores the importance of having meaning in your life. I also think that being able to aggressively pursue a fulfilling and meaningful life is one of the most significant incentives to be healthy and do many of the things described in this article. It’s not easy to pursue your passions without the energy, stamina, and mental clarity that good health provides.

Get Primal and Live Better!

Although The Primal Blueprint is a recent publication, I’ve been living by the same principles since 2007. It’s been a major factor in helping me recover from chronic fatigue syndrome and has provoked me to develop a much stronger appreciation for nature and our dependence on it. Overall, it has improved my life tremendously.

As I mentioned previously, The Primal Blueprint is an incredibly well rounded resource for learning how to live a healthy lifestyle. The book goes into great detail for each of the 10 laws described above and includes additional information about weight loss, the typical modern lifestyle, how our ancestors lived, and plenty of information on nutrition and its impact on health. If you’re motivated to get more out of life through better health, I highly recommend that you read this book.

[1. Larsen CS. "Biological Changes in Human Populations with Agriculture." Annual Review of Anthropology. 1995. 24:185-213.]
[2. Larsen CS. "Animal Source Foods and Human Health During Evolution." Journal of Nutrition. 2003. 133(11):3893S-3897S.]
[3. Wiercinski A. "Has the Brain Size Decreased Since the Upper Paleolithic Period?" Bulletins et Mémoires de la Société d'anthropologie de Paris. 1979. 6:419-427.]
[4. Ruff CB, Trinkaus E, Holliday TW. "Body mass and encephalization in Pleistocene Homo." Nature. 1997. 387:173-176.]

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