Regular Exercise and Weight Training
I mentioned in an earlier post that I have been weight training while I am off running. This brings up the whole topic of exercise, and this is what I want to write about now.
Let’s start with a look at how caveman would have exercised compared to how modern human’s use their bodies today.
Too many people forget that a healthy lifestyle is an active lifestyle, and should include a variety of exercise and activities. Think about caveman’s lifestyle compared to ours today. He didn’t have a car, a sofa, an armchair, a soft bed, pillows, cushions, a thick duvet or a padded work chair at his desk. He didn’t work in an office, he didn’t have a desk, he didn’t drive a car or truck for 9 to 10 hours each day, he didn’t sit down all day. Caveman would have slept on the floor (where do you think our in-born fear of spiders comes from? We had to beware of things biting the babies…and the adults) and his bedding would have been leaves, braches, animal skins, mud, moss, etc. Building a comfortable bed would have been an art, and I am sure the lack of fresh leafy branches in winter would have made his winter bed far less comfortable than his summer bed.
Then and now
As a side note, for those of you who are new to this blog, when I talk about ‘caveman’ I am referring to all mammals of the Homo genus, which have walked on Earth, on two feet, since about 2.5 million years ago until today. Modern humans, Homo sapiens (that’s us) have been around for roughly 190,000 years, and our nearest living relative, the Neanderthal, died out about 30,000 years ago. Prior to 2.5 million years ago, and stretching back to 8 million years ago, our earlier ancestors evolved from tree dwelling apes over a period of several million years. As these apes came down out of the trees and began to live in open grasslands, over a very long period, their mainly-vegetarian diet evolved to include hunting for more meat. From 2.5 million years ago, meat became a major component of ‘our’ diet.
My main interest in evolution and history is this period from 2.5 million years ago, to today. This is the period during which we rose to our current position as the dominant species on the planet. Between 13,000 years ago and 10,000 years ago, in a few places on Earth, we stopped being hunter gatherers and started to settle into fixed communities, and we began to cultivate certain grasses (grains) and domesticate animals (dairy). Thus agriculture was born. In many parts of the world, agriculture did not take hold until more recently, as recently as just 5000 years ago. In some tiny isolated parts of the world, agriculture is still not practiced, but sadly these traditional hunter gatherer tribes are now rare and isolated. Broadly speaking, agriculture became a widespread human practice roughly 10,000 to 8,000 years ago.
I believe that the healthiest time in human history was from 2.5 million years ago to roughly 10,000 years ago, when we ate an all-natural diet and used our physical bodies for a variety of tasks every day. I believe that the advent of agriculture, especially the industrialisation of agriculture in modern times, has fundamentally harmed human health. When I talk about ‘caveman’ in terms of nutrition or exercise, I am referring to our ancestors between 2.5 million years ago and circa 10,000 years ago.
For most of the last 15,000 to 18,000 years, life on Earth has been like it is today, from a climatic and geographic point of view. The last ice age retreated back then, circa 15,000 to 18,000 years ago, and sea levels stabilized roughly as they are now, determining and defining the physical world we know today. We are currently living in ‘a warm period’ in Earth’s history, and sea levels are historically quite high, but most scientists agree we are due another cold period ‘sometime soon’. For much of the last 10 million years, Earth was a colder place than it is now and seal levels were lower than they are now, because more water was locked up as ice in the polar regions.
Caveman’s daily schedule
Caveman would have risen with the sun, and most of the time he would have gone to sleep soon after dark too. Building fires would have served for cooking and heating, but would have been too much effort just for lighting, so once it was dark, I believe the ‘family’ would likely have rested. Caveman would have had ‘chairs’ to sit on – made of rocks, logs, and not much else. Not the padded cushioned comfort we are so familiar with. Sleeping and sitting are both very comfortable experiences for us modern humans, and the comfort encourages many of us to spend a little too much time in bed or sitting down.
Now I shall not get into a lengthy dialogue about the time we spend sitting down and what it does to our spine, to our leg muscles and to our back muscles. Caveman often would have ‘sat down’ for a rest, to light his fire, to eat, to chat, by simply squatting down on his feet, so that his buttocks pretty much rested on the back of his heels. In poorer (Southern Hemisphere) parts of the ‘majority world’ this is still commonplace, but in Western/Northern wealthy countries, most people have lost the flexibility required to comfortably spend time in this resting position. Such a resting position is the perfect way to stretch out our gluteal muscles and hamstrings after a day walking and running tracking prey, so caveman would have kept flexible this way, without needing a dedicated stretching session!
Modern humans spend too much time sitting down, in our cars, at our desks, on the sofa in front of the TV. Caveman would have been active all day. He would have hunted, on his feet, walking and running, at varying speeds, sometimes for days at a time tracking a herd of animals. He would have climbed trees to steal eggs, he would have crossed rivers, including building crude rafts to cross major rivers, he would have climbed rocks to raid bees nests for honey, he would have lifted heavy rocks, logs and branches to build fires and shelter, he would have climbed on rocky cliffs to steal eggs from bird’s nests, he would have crawled stealthily while stalking his pray and he would have fought animals in the act of the kill.
Our bodies are designed to move, and I believe that these ‘natural activities’, or exercises that somehow emulate such a variety of movements, offer the best forms of exercise. Walk, run, swim, climb, lift and fight. There is a system called MovNat, it’s a French organisation, Movement Naturelle, a set of beliefs and exercise principles based on this way of thinking. MovNat is based in the US now, and at some point in the next year or two I hope to go out there and do a couple of weeks training with them. I have read about MovNat training and it sounds very attuned with my own beliefs around exercise and training. They lift logs, throw rocks, run, climb, crawl, balance, fight and swim.
Run, and fight
I often think about the work caveman would have had to do. Imagine the running involved in chasing down an animal such as a wild boar. Caveman would have had to chase the animal at pace through woodland for long enough to exhaust the boar, before finally getting close enough to attack his prey, and then fight to the death. Caveman may been armed with a stone-tipped spear, to bring the animal down, but in all eventuality, once wounded, he would have had to go in for the kill, and he probably would have used a ‘knife’ made from a sharpened bone from a previous kill, or a pointed stick, and he would have had to attack, wrestle, and kill the animal by hand. This 200 pound boar with short tusks, hard hooves and strong teeth, would have been fighting for its life. Think about how much work caveman had to do to secure his meal. He had to be a strong middle-distance runner, a careful sprinter (minding hazards on the forest floor – there is no hospital if he broke his ankle), and a tough cage-fighter (no tetanus jab for cuts and scratches).
By the same measure, the boar was a strong runner and a hard fighter too – which accounts for why wild meats have considerably lower fat content than modern farmed meats. Not only are modern humans lazy, but so are farm animals, compared to their primitive wild ancestors.
So when I exercise, I like to think about all these things and try to train in ways that use my body in these natural ways it was designed to work. Of course, I could get my kids to dress up as wild animals and chase them round the park and beat them up, but I would probably get arrested for that, so I just try to train in ways that I use my bodyweight and the environment around me as resistance.
MotherNaturesDiet workout routines
Living the MND way, I walk, I run, I swim (not often enough) and I climb (rock climbing is great exercise). I do a lot of bodyweight workouts, and to be honest, good old push-ups are my all time favourite exercise. I do lots of chins, dips, crunches, lunges, burpees and squat thrusts. These old-school classic movements are so often ignored these days, as if they were some kind of embarrassing 1970s new-recruits-in-the-army training moves that no one wants to do anymore. The truth is, in the 21st century, most lycra-glad, air-conditioned gym members don’t want to do these moves because they are too much like real hard work! Sitting on a recumbent exercise cycle in the gym chatting to your buddy in front of a wide-screen TV is what most people now call exercise. Try an hour of push ups, shuttle runs, burpees, squat thrusts, chins, dips, bear crawls, mountain climbers, crunches, lunges, pull ups and star jumps and you’ll feel the difference the next day.
Caveman would have had days when he worked very hard, out hunting ‘on foot at pace’ all day tracking a large animal such as an antelope or similar. There would have been days when a team of hunters would have been tracking, trapping and killing a big animal such as a mammoth or woolly rhinoceros (now extinct but once prevalent across Europe and Central Asia). These days would have been long and very physical, these hunters would have trekked many miles, some walking, some running, and the physical task of the actual kill would have been a serious workout. Archaeological evidence suggests men hunted in large groups, often hunting a whole herd of large animals in one go. These would have been big, multi-day efforts, expending thousands of calories in effort for each man, but the resulting rewards would have provided hundreds of thousands of calories of food for the entire tribe or community.
Less hunt, more gather
Other days caveman would have been less of the hunter and more of the gatherer. He would have certainly climbed trees to raid nests and steal eggs. I think eggs would have formed a crucial element of his diet in spring and summer (in Mother Nature’s world, eggs are seasonal folks…) and they were an easy source of nutrients. Compared to the effort of hunting, eggs offered top-quality nutrients for minimal effort, climbing trees or raiding ground nests under rocks and hidden in scrub. Other days would have involved gathering fruit, berries, nuts, seeds, digging up edible roots and gathering edible fungi and leaves and so on.
Then there would have been days when activities included shelter building, firewood gathering, building defences (from the weather and from predators and other potential dangers) and then there also would have been easy days, rest days. When a new baby was due, caveman surely would have settled and built shelter, likely staying in one place for some weeks at a time, to enable birth and recovery for the mother and new baby. Setting up camp this way would have involved a different set of labours to a big hunt.
Now in my book (when I finish writing it!) I will talk a lot more about such details of how I think caveman would have lived day-to-day, but for today, let’s not get in to too much detail, let’s just acknowledge that caveman’s ‘typical week’ might have involved 2 days of extreme physical activity, hunting and fighting, running many miles; then 3 or 4 days of lighter activity, gathering, camp building, fishing in a river, beachcombing, firewood gathering; and then 1 or 2 days of very little activity, resting around camp, teaching skills to the younger members of the ‘tribe’, playing with the young and babies, preparing stone tools, sharpening sticks, etc. There is no evidence that any of this is true, this is just my own common-sense thinking.
Modern ‘urban caveman’ exercise
If we try to emulate such a lifestyle interpreted for our modern lives, we can make some sense of how our bodies should function.
- 2 days per week constant physical activity all day, mostly aerobic activity (walking and jogging over varied terrain all day), but with bursts of intense anaerobic ‘fight’
- 3 days intermediate light activities on-and-off throughout the whole day, a mix of low-intensity aerobic work and short periods of anaerobic work, harder and using more of our muscles
- 1 day per week ‘heavy lifting’ in sessions throughout the day
- 1 day mostly rest, a little wandering around, a lot of sitting, squatting, lying, fishing, chilling, playing with kids
Now of course, I wasn’t alive 100,000 years ago and I didn’t hunt woolly mammoth all day and I can’t really know for sure what caveman’s week looked like, but I think, from reading many anthropology and history books, that this may be a fair representation of the lives our prehistoric ancestors lived.
I also realise that for many people, who work from 8 or 9 in the morning until 5 or 6 every evening, 5 days per week, that they have little choice in the level of physical activity they do at these times. Well, all I can say to that is…your lifestyle, including your work, is your choice. I have found ways to adapt my work to allow me to exercise most days and still build my career, and now I would not sacrifice my health for my work in the future, but I appreciate that I am not a normal case.
Luckily for me, as I am home based, I have flexibility that most other people don’t have. My job is a desk job, I run a publishing company, but I stopped sitting down (all day) over 7 years ago. I threw my office chair away 7 years ago and built a wooden stand which sits on top of my desk, elevating my keyboard, monitor and mouse to ‘standing height’ and I have been standing to my desk ever since. It is much better – I have not had back ache in 7 years, I have higher energy levels, I feel better, more awake, less prone to ‘after-lunch-slump’ and I think I work harder and faster.
I work long hours, but I take time off work to exercise whenever I like, so I can try my best, within the confines of actually doing my job, to stay active throughout the day. Some days I will spread my day’s exercise out over the whole day, doing sets of push-ups on my office floor between emails and phone calls, or popping out to my home gym (in the garage) a dozen times throughout the day for just a few minutes effort each time. I repeat, I appreciate that not everyone has the flexibility that I have, but then, for me, it’s been a conscious lifestyle choice.
Ten years ago, I could have chosen to climb the corporate ladder like other people do, working in an office for a big corporation all day. Maybe if I had made that choice, I would have a higher salary than I do now. But I decided to work for myself, and as a result, for ten years I have enjoyed being a home-based worker, and I have spent ten years with my family, at home with my three kids (aged 9, 7 and 5) every day of their lives, and I have the bonus of my flexible exercise schedule. I have better health and I am closer to my kids, because of that choice I made ten years ago. Health and family over money. We all have choices.
So I would love to emulate this caveman-style physical lifestyle, but really, how practical or easy is such an exercise pattern?
In a perfect world, I might spend 2 days out hill walking; 3 days around home light gardening, DIY and odd jobs; 1 or 2 days doing a couple of short heavy weight-training workouts; and 1 day completely resting. Obviously, the responsibilities of modern life, with my family and career to think of, make such a routine almost impossible. However, it is possible to get close to this desirable goal. Maybe something like this:
– 2 decent long aerobic workouts per week, perhaps a long run and a long bike ride
– 3 days each week when I try to keep my body moving all day, fitting in multiple brief workouts throughout the day, as time allows
– 1 day heavy weight training
– 1 day complete rest
It’s not perfect, but it’s as close as I can manage.
Did caveman ride a bike?
OK, I admit there is nothing very natural about the leg motion involved in riding a bicycle, and I am fairly certain that caveman didn’t have an expensive carbon-framed racing bike tucked in a corner of his cave! As well as running, lifting weights and doing my body-weight exercises, I also cycle a lot and I have a rowing machine at home. I know caveman didn’t ride a bike and I’m pretty sure he didn’t have a Concept II Indoor Rower, but in the name of variety, these are good ways to stay fit, and they offer my legs a change from running all the time.
Combine the above-listed weekly exercise schedule, with a generally active lifestyle, and not spending all day sat down on a chair or in a car, and not spending 3 or 4 hours every evening on the sofa staring at the TV, and by the end of every week, my body has been exposed to a good range of activities. In any one typical week, I have used my muscles to lift weights, I have used my heart and lungs aerobically, I have stretched and moved my body through a wide variety of different movements and I will have kept myself moving enough to keep my base metabolic rate elevated most of the time. I do not manage this balance every week, sometimes not at all, but I offer this as a target, a template of how to stay fit in a balanced way that emulates our natural heritage.
Variety and balance
We have discussed how caveman would have lived a much more physically active lifestyle than most modern humans, and how his typical week would have involved a wide variety of movements and exercises, not just one thing. Above, I have written about trying to design my own weekly exercise scedule to broadly emulate this ‘paleo’ exercise plan. Broadly speaking, the major books on ‘paleo living’ say something pretty similar. The excellent ‘Primal Blueprint’ by Mark Sissons, the book that I first read when I started studying ‘caveman diets’ suggests a week which includes several moderate (not long) cardio sessions, a couple of weights sessions, a couple of flat out high-intensity sprints and plenty of light day-to-day gentle activity. I think this is spot on.
The trick here is variety and balance. It’s about doing more than JUST one thing.
You get some folks who just lift weights…they build big muscles, but they are not particularly fit, or agile, and unless they engage in a dedicated stretching program, then they will certainly not be flexible. Eventually, if they train heavy all the time, they will be prone to injuries from repetitive strain in joints that suffer from reduced flexibility (from overuse).
You get some folks who just run (or cycle, or swim). They are fit (in terms of aerobic conditioning), but often they can look ‘scrawny’ and they often lack adaptability. And of course, no one is prone to lower limb injuries like high-volume runners! Oh, I know, I’ve been there, done that.
Multiple disciplines and circuit training
Personally, I think the correct way to achieve all-round balanced health and fitness is to practice multiple disciplines. I use running, cycling and rowing for fitness (heart and lungs). I weight train (mostly using bodyweight, but also using free weights) to build strength and muscle. I stretch and do a little yoga (when I have time) to stay flexible, and I do the stretching much more when I am running regularly.
I regularly train with a workout partner early in the morning before work. We train for 40 to 70 minutes each time and we do hard calisthenics workouts than use every part of our bodies. This gives my body aerobic and anaerobic conditioning in a single workout, by combining a series of hard exercises one after another without rest in between. All my muscles get used, but I am also gasping for breath by the end, pushing my heart and lungs.
My friend and I take turns to design ‘WoW’, Workout of the Week (and you can find a number of these on the ‘Exercise’ page of this site), and we mix up a variety of activities to build up to roughly an hour of hard work.
Most weeks, our workouts include these exercises:
- push-ups (flat, decline, typewriter, crocodile, etc. There are literally hundreds of ways to perform push-ups!)
- sit-ups or crunches
- chins (we use branches of a tree)
- squats (we take turns, throwing the other guy over our shoulders and doing sets of 10 to 12 squats using each other as weight)
- sprints (we train in an empty local car park, so we sprint lengths of the car park)
- bear crawls, crocodile crawls, crab crawls, and other similar torture
- dips (some handy rusty old railings at the back of the car park where we train are perfect)
- weighted runs (throw partner over shoulders and ‘jog’ up the car park, reverse on return)
- deep lunges (slow lunge walking the length of the car park, incredible thigh burn)
- squat thrusts (torture)
- mountain climbers
- burpees (oh we do so many horrible burpees, and I do hate them!)
- star jumps, tuck jumps, squat jumps, standing jumps and so on
Compiling an hour of these type exercises back to back is hard work for anyone, and I challenge even the fittest gym users to try these workouts and see how they get on. The ‘gym-rats’ lifting weights all day can’t cope with the workload as there is no rest, so they find such workouts aerobically exhausting. The super-fit runners can’t cope as they are not used to do all that muscle work. Try designing workouts like this yourself, mix it up, there is no right or wrong, and it’s fun to design your own routine. Swap it up, one using upper-body muscles, the next using lower-body, back and forth, so one muscle group rests while you exercise another, all the while keeping up the pressure on your aerobic system to keep you moving.
Bringing it all together
So to bring this long post together in some sort of summary, my ideal week builds up like this:
- 3 days early morning circuit training – or fast, circuit-style weight training at home if we don’t do this
- 1 day bike ride
- Possibly 1 day run
- 1 or 2 days multiple short workouts at home
- 1 day rest
- (yes that adds up to 8…it’s all pretty flexible…give or take, it varies every week, I’m just trying to explain an “average” week)
The days I do multiple short workouts at home are the most varied. Some days I am so busy concentrating on work, I just do push ups. If I am so busy that I don’t have time to dream up anything more imaginative, I’ll just try to drop to my office floor and crank out a set of push-ups whenever I remember – 30 here, 50 there, 20 the next set, whatever I can do. I try to keep count, and will often crank out 500 or 600 over the day, and while it’s hardly a perfect and varied balance of exercise, at least it’s something to keep my metabolism fired up.
Other days I will fit in 1 or 2 sets each of a number of exercises, throughout the day, or over a period of a few hours. This might include chins, dips, pull-ups, push-ups, crunches, inverted sit-ups, etc. I also have two punch bags at home, so will work out on the bag when I feel like it, and I have built a climbing wall up the side of my house, so I will climb for half an hour whenever the sun is shining. I also constructed a much smaller indoor climbing wall in my garage, up one wall and across the ceiling, so I can climb in there in winter too.
Too much running…or not enough!
A varied exercise program will help maintain your whole body. When I was just running, apart from the lower-limb injuries I was getting, I felt I was starting to look at little too scrawny. I would go to races and look around at all the other runners on the start line. No disrespect to runners (or cyclists, who tend to be similar) but these guys do not all look like cover models if you know what I mean. They might be fit, but a lot of runners and cyclists need to eat more and lift a few weights, or at least that’s what I think when I look at them. But by the same token, those ‘meat heads’ in the gym who could pick up a small car with one hand…would probably suffer a heart attack if they had to run for the bus.
The kind of fitness and condition I am trying to achieve for myself, is to be fit enough to crank out a 5-mile or 10-mile run anytime without the need to prepare for it, while having a body I don’t feel ashamed of on the beach, and being strong enough to hold my own in a fight, and be good at rock climbing. Add to that, being supple and flexible enough to do it all without picking up an injury!
That sounds easy…but it isn’t!
I have the fitness – I can run 5 miles at the drop of a hat, and when I am running regularly, I can go out and hit a sub-100-minute half marathon pretty much any day of the week. My road marathon PB is 3:14 (in my 40’s), and between running and cycling, I try my best to stay fit year-round.
I am building the muscle, slowly. I am not naturally that big framed, and I have very long limbs, so it’s hard graft for me, especially trying to build my arms, and I never get enough sleep because I lead such a busy life, and building muscle needs lots of sleep. I have gained 11 pounds of muscle in 11 months (in 2012), so I’m doing well.
I try to fit in a yoga session or at least a good stretch minimum once per week. It should be much more…and just lately, I’ve missed way too many.
I have not been martial arts training much this year (2012), partly because I have had too many injuries, and not enough time and too much else on my plate.
I am trying my best to fit everything in!
Think about your own exercise routine, and how much you use and move your body when you are not engaged in structured exercise. I would encourage you to dump the expensive air-conditioned gym in favour of the outside world if you can. Riding a bike outside is a whole different sport to riding the stationary bike in the gym. Running outside is a whole different sport to running on a treadmill in the gym. Doing sets of chins hanging off a tree branch, mid way through a run in the woods, is going to work your biceps in a whole different way to that barbell in the gym.
Fresh air, unpredictable weather and vitamin-D producing sunshine all add a different feel to your workouts, and in my opinion, you will be all the better off for it. Mix it up, have fun, experiment with variety and let me know how you get on!