Paleo (as in ‘Paleolithic’ era) is a set of ideas and principles that originate from what we know of the early lives of ‘primitive’, hunter-gatherers. These pre-industrial, pre-agrarian people are admired for their high levels of fitness, low levels of fat and resistance to modern diseases.
‘Paleo’ might be best described as a rational set of operating parameters for our lives, based on evolutionary science. Those parameters include dietary, exercise and lifestyle factors.
Our ancestors evolved over millions of years under certain environmental conditions. These conditions (the foods they ate, the amount of sun they got, the sort of movement that was required of them to survive, etc.) shaped their genome. While the world has changed in innumerable ways in the last 10,000 years (for better and worse), the human genome has changed very little and thus only thrives under similar conditions. Simply put, if you want a good future you better listen to the past.
The Paleo principles show you how to direct your gene expression toward fat burning, muscle building, longevity and wellness, and away from fat storing, muscle wasting, disease and illness.
Surely cavemen/hunter gatherers didn’t live that long. Their average life expectancy was much lower than todays?
That’s undeniable. They didn’t have an NHS service and most died of of injury, abandonment, wounds, attacks or untreatable diseases long before they reached the age of which they were otherwise capable. So yes, the average was much lower, especially when you remember how many women and children died during childbirth.
However, we believe that the few that survived these daily threats to their lives lived into their sixth or seventh decade (perhaps much longer, if you believe biblical accounts). Moreover, they didn’t experience coronary heart disease, obesity, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer, depression, chronic stress, anxiety, ADHD, addictions and many other diseases to which our western cultures are disposed. Which raises the question ‘Why?’.
Something they were doing was very, very right. Or, if you prefer, something we’re now doing is very,very wrong. And it’s caused scientists to look into the difference between how we lived many hundreds of years ago and the way we do today to see if there aren’t elements of the past we should retain if we wish to live life most fully and healthily.
Locals of Bathhurst island. Chap in the middle must be well over 60. Don’t think he won that muscle in the gym though…
But the theory says rather more than this though. The theory of evolution posits that natural selection will favour those people (well genes, more accurately) who possess traits that allow them to survive and breed where others will fail. In this way human beings have adapted over millennia to their environment – psychologically, physiologically and genetically speaking – and have made a comfortable match.
Over the last few thousand years however (a fraction of the time humans have been walking the earth) their lifestyles have changed far more quickly and rapidly than evolution has been able to keep up with. The result of this is that humans are no longer perfectly adapted to their environment: backs hurt from sitting in chairs; eyes weaken from close reading all day; waists fatten from little exercise and an abundance of easy cheap calories.
Humans have changed their environment so fast that, although their high-tech lives appear much easier, there is a hidden price in the deviations away from the lifestyle we are genetically predisposed to expect.
So are you saying we should burn the TV and go live in a cave?
No. What we’re saying here is that we can use the sciences of evolution and anthropology as a framework to assess modern developments and decide for ourselves whether we might benefit from changing our lifestyle in favour of a more natural (i.e. evolutionally normative) behaviour.
Some of these changes are already common. For example: although we don’t need to run away from predators much these days, many people adopt running for the health benefits it can bring. It makes sense against an evolutionary scale that our bodies should require this sort of regular exercise as as our ancestors would have needed to travel over many miles to obtain food sources while avoiding becoming one themselves.
But it’s just common-sense that running is good for you. Tell me something I don’t know.
Some of the recommendations of Paleo thinkers are just that: common-sense! Not nearly as radical as they are sometimes made out to be. Other aspects are less obvious and more radical – until you think about them a bit.
For example, many Paleo thinkers think that the wearing of shoes have done a lot of harm to our feet, our sense of balance and our agility. Increasingly athletes are turning to a more minimalist shoe that does without the enormous wedge-shaped cushioned heels that are now a feature of almost every trainer. They believe that, instead of insulating it from the environment with which it evolved to cope, having the foot in closer contact with the ground encourages natural and correct movement patterns.
Essentially, it seems that many of our problems boil down to just this sort of thing. We’ve cushioned ourselves against the challenges of life to a point where the lack of them and the correlative adaptive processes is posing new dangers for us.
Dust-free houses are casing asthma; threat-free but fearful lives are causing depression; exertion-free lives are causing obesity; nature-free lives are causing disconnection and spiritual apathy; community-free lives are causing isolation, narcissism and unhappiness.
Our attempts to master nature and stand alone seem to have caused a rift – a rift between us and the environment our genes expect to engage with. Paleo is about spotting those discrepancies and putting them right where we benefit from doing so.
What does the theory say about women though? Didn’t they just wait around in the cave for the men to come back from hunting?
They don’t today, and they didn’t then. Some women might have joined in the hunting, but even if they didn’t always, they were extremely active. They would have spent out hours foraging, cutting, dragging, preparing wood for the fire, collecting water, carrying their youngest children and generally working very hard. However, they probably also had more time for fun, relaxation, play and community than many women are afforded the time for today. The emphasis was on doing enough to survive rather than keeping up with the Joneses.
What can I do right now to get back into line with evolution?
Get up from your chair outside, relax and breathe deeply. Be thankful you’re alive. Stop stressing about stuff that doesn’t matter.
What are Paleo principles then?
There isn’t a governing set, but a series of idea based around the principle that what we evolved to do should play more of a part in our lives. My own include:
- Get plenty of sunlight, outdoor time and exposure to natural things.
- Eat real, natural, unprocessed foods (animal and plants) and avoid poisonous ones.
- Exercise everyday ideally, but avoid all but momentary exhaustion.
- Exercise in a way that copies or replicates the way our ancestors lived before they depended on farmers (or supermarkets!) for their next meal.
- Move in all spatial dimensions (3d) to regain the flexibility and joy in movement we had when children. PLAY.
- Sprint and lift heavy things a few times a week.
- Remain aware of your surroundings, thankful for what you have, and attuned to the present moment.
- Don’t get caught up in endless addictive worry masquerading as rational thought. Rather, be present and fully aware of your surroundings.
- Use your feelings and intuition as much as your intellect. Early man was not an intellectual but was possessed of shrewd common-sense, sharpened sensibilities and observational powers, coupled with a rich, playful imagination.
- Value and engage with your community – try to be inter-dependent not independent (isolated).
- Spend as little time sitting as possible. Squat, stand, move or lie instead. (We didn’t evolve to sit on chairs – hence backpain being the biggest reason for work absenteeism worldwide.)
- Shed your shoes and go Barefoot sometimes – ideally, when possible, for exercise too.
So what’s Paleo exercise when it’s at home? Polar bear hunting?
Now you’re just being silly, but actually a session that replicates the challenges of tracking, stalking and chasing prey, before carrying it back to camp and cutting wood for a fire would make an excellent work out.
Really though, it’s any sort of exercise that focuses on whole body movements rather than isolating muscles. It should be varied, interesting, and use our bodies in the way our ancestors would have used theirs. So we might choose walking over cycling, throws over sit-ups, wrestling over rowing, climbing over swiss balls, and sometimes lifting awkward logs or rocks rather than ergonomic weights.
It’s not all this radical though and it doesn’t have to involve getting shoeless and dirty, if that’s not quite your thing. These movements can all be mirrored in the more sanitary environment of the gym, or your house, with modern equipment or even everyday household items.
A programme starts with a reasonable base of low-intensity walking/ running/ and/or swimming. This bit’s easy for you to do on your own.
To this we add as many other natural movements as possible. (Some easily described ones are jumping, dragging, lunging, pushing, squatting, throwing, twisting, hopping, carrying, climbing, etc.)
In addition to this we would also include very high intensity bursts of exertion on a less frequent basis. Lifting heavy-ish things and all-out sprinting (chasing) are just two obvious examples.
There’s also a preference for exercises that mirror the healthy, natural movements that we make in our everyday lives. So, for example, a deadlift would be an appropriate exercise as it is a movement that is a part of our everyday living. This exercise will make you a better, more fuctional person. (A triceps extension will not!)
The deadlift: a movement with a real-world, practical application.
Sounds good in theory. Does it work?
Absolutely. This sort of training draws on all sides of your human physical nature. It challenges your body in the three dimensions of movement of which the human body is capable, on a kinetic (movement), metabolic (energy) and even a spiritual level. (The connection between exercise, nature and the alleviation of depression is well established).
Great. I’ll make my own programme!
When putting together a programme, the devil is in the details. It’s much harder to develop your own routines, as they quickly become just that – routine! You will naturally lean towards your strengths, which leads to complacency, boredom and stagnation. Left to your own devices, you’ll lose the necessary intensity, and will choose comfortable, repetitious routines that don’t stimulate you enough. Your programme will inevitably lack the quality, variety and challenge that leads to the best results.
This is true of any sort of training, but is particularly true of Paleo, where the principle is to replicate the ever changing physical challenges of living as a hunter-gatherer. If you’re doing the similar workouts, week-in, week-out, you will reach a plateau very quickly.
It sounds a bit ‘backward-looking’ or nostagic. Shouldn’t we be looking forwards – cutting edge science and all that?
Well this is just the point: science keeps highlighting how much fitter out ancestors were and how our lives of hi-tech convenience have all but removed the need to exert ourselves and move in the patterns that we have evolved to. Even many sports rely on highly repetitious, unnatural movement patterns that end of injuring us rather than promoting our best development.
Our ancestors, by contrast, lived (admittedly tough) lives of random movement, varied challenges, on various surfaces, with both purposeful and spontaneously playful intent. They never had needed nor required exercise programmes. Yet the sort of lives they lived provided ample and balanced challenge without them ever needing to think about it.
Modern training thinking is just beginning to recognise the importance of training in all three dimensions rather than the traditional, limited way we see in gyms across the world.
Does the theory have implications for my diet?
Of course! Paleolithic man/woman didn’t eat coco pops, drink coke, or spread vegetable oil spreads over nutrient-dead, whiteflour-based bread. And because of this, they only worried about keeping their weight UP, not down, and developed physiques and physical capabilities that would be the envy of all but the most accomplished gymnasts or decathletes.
The fact is that once we start eating the right foods the rest of the guff we talk about endlessly doesn’t really matter. You know, counting calories, pills, de-tox plans, fewer meals, smaller meals, no food after 6pm – all that boring stuff.
For more on nutrition, see HERE.
If you’re interested, I think my next main area of research will be into evolutionary psychology. Perhaps I’ll give some thought to the idea that the modern need for self-help books and psychologists comes out of an absense of time spend chatting around the campfire?
If you have any thoughts or questions on this, or anything training or Paleo related, please drop me an line.
I’ll leave you with a self-explanatory picture: