After a hard climb in the mountains this easter, I was resting my sore bones in the outdoor hot tub – reading an interesting article about where our genes stem from. The research article claimed that the human gene was incepted 84,000 generations ago. And that the lifestyle of the human hunter-gatherers represents the exercise patterns for which we remain genetically adapted to this day.
Survival for the hunter-gatherers required a daily energy expenditure in activities including food and water procurement, escape from predators and maintaining shelter and clothing.
As humans, we are still capable of performing the wide array of actions and behaviors required of the hunter-gatherer. Improvements in technology such as the agricultural revolution (350 generations ago), the industrial revolution (7 generations ago), and the digital age (2 generations ago) have resulted in reductions in the amount of physical work required by humans.
However, our exercise capabilities and requirements remain essentially the same as for our Stone Age ancestors.
The article states that deviation from those indigenous exercise patterns predictably results in physical disability and disease. That is why an understanding of the typical hunter-gatherer physical activity pattern would seem to be an ideal template to design a modern exercise program.
Our ancestors had an instinct to “Move when you have to, and rest when you can.” These instincts to preserve energy and strength to survive the hunt or be hunted – served as advantages to hunter-gatherers. However, this inborn proclivity to take the easy way plays a major role in the health of modern people
Ideal exercise patterns for our hunter – gatherer genes
The research found that physical activity performed outside may be more beneficial than indoor exercise. Outdoor exercise offers the opportunity for sunlight exposure, which stimulates vitamin D synthesis in the epidermis. Vitamin D deficiency is a common and potent risk factor for many health problems, including cardiovascular disease.
Outdoor exercise also reduces emotional stress and enhances compliance with a daily fitness regimen better than indoor exercise.
Cross training and rest
Hunter-gatherers would have likely alternated difficult days with less demanding days when possible. Their routines called for endeavors that promoted aerobic endurance, flexibility, and strength; thereby bestowing them with multi-faceted fitness that would have also conferred resiliency and rest to reduced the likelihood of injury.
The same pattern of alternating a strenuous workout one day with an easy one the next day produces higher levels of fitness with lower rates of injury.
In exercise physiology, the aerobic capacity within an individual may increase based upon exercise frequency, intensity, and duration. Of these 3 factors, the intensity is the most important feature in optimizing the aerobic capacity, especially in an already trained individual.
Dangers of excessive exersice and inadequate rest
Physical exercise is unquestionably protective, but there are evolving data from Vogel et al and others that extreme physical activity may be detrimental to cardiovascular health. Prolonged and excessive aerobic exercise efforts such as marathons, ultra-marathons, full-distance triathlons, and very-long-distance bicycle rides are inconsistent with our genetic heritage.
The pattern of exercise for which we are genetically adapted involves a diversity of activities performed intermittently, at moderate intensities and a moderate duration. Even in highly trained individuals, high-intensity, multi-hour endurance exercise effort is associated with damage to the myocardial cells and connective tissue
Naturally restoring the calorie balance
For all humans before the dawn of the Agricultural Revolution, energy input (food) and energy expenditure (physical activity) were directly and inextricably linked. When were hungry, they had to hunt, gather, forage, and fish. Hunger, or even the threat of inadequate food, instills a powerful motivation to move with intensity and purpose.
The convenient modern world has virtually eliminated the evolutionary connection between energy expenditure and calorie ingestion. This disconnect between energy intake and energy expenditure in modern cultures is a fundamental factor in the obesity epidemic.
Increasing reliance on pharmaceutical agents to counteract this problem instead of being more physically active is a problem. Our diet should include more unprocessed, naturally low-calorie, whole foods in order to correct this energy imbalance.4
Summary of how natural exercise will ensure our survival in the future
- A large amount of daily walking was required. The distances covered varied widely in the range of 6 to 16 km. The hunter-gatherers’ daily energy expenditures were at least 800 to 1200 kcal – about 3 to 5 times more than today.
- Hard days were typically followed by an easier day. Rest, relaxation and sleep were important to ensure complete recovery after strenuous exertion.
- Walking and running were done on natural surfaces such as grass and dirt, often over uneven ground.
- Interval training sessions, involving intermittent bursts of moderate- to high-level intensity with intervening periods of rest and recovery.
- Weight training and other strength and flexibility building exercises are essential for optimizing musculoskeletal and general health and fitness. These need to be performed at least 2 or 3 times per week.
- Virtually all of the exercise was done outdoors in the natural world.
- Much of the physical activity was done in the context of a social setting. Exercising with one or more partners improves adherence and mood.
- Except for the very young and the very old, all individuals were, by necessity, physically active almost their entire lives
The ultimate solution – head for the mountains
Hiking and backpacking the great outdoors could be a great opportunity for most people to enhance their health according to the guidelines in this research on our genes. Backpacking includes these activities:
- Hours of walking in the terrain could resemble the hours spent hunting and gathering.
- Carrying a backpack would be close to carrying children or food they gathered.
- Camping to get out of the rain or snow would be similar to them getting home.
- Gathering wood and getting the fire going and cooking under the stars would be similar to their everyday cooking
- being outside getting lots of vitamin D
- outdoor exercise as a stress reducer
- having to work to cook a meal (hunt, fish, collect berries, wood, water, etc)
I felt pretty darn good laying in the outdoor hot tub – resting my body after a great hard day on the mountain. If this research is correct! Hiking and Backpacking is the perfect hobby for human genes.
Read the intire article in The American Journal of Medicine