Want to live a long and healthy life? Exercise like your ancestors!

The other day my husband left a research article for me on the kitchen counter (my ‘unofficial office’). This, in and of itself, is not unusual. He is a professor of evolutionary biology and spends much of his day searching through on-line data bases for new literature. He frequently stumbles upon things he thinks are relevant to my work. What was unusual above this article was the fact that I took the time to read it!

Scholarly articles are often dry, laborious reading, full of jargon that is impenetrable to the non-expert. I know this from personal experience, having spent 15 years of my life as an academic and being the author of more than 20 published (and jargon-laden) scientific articles! (Note that it’s only other specialists’ terminology that we refer to as ‘jargon’, our own is merely ‘technical’ or ‘specific’…)

This one was different. It was engaging and easy to read and focused on a topic near and dear to my heart; the relationship between lifestyle (exercise and nutrition) and health and longevity.

Exercise like a hunter-gatherer: a prescription for organic physical fitness. O’Keefe, J.H., Vogel, R., Lavie, C.J. And Cordain, L. 2011. Progress in Cardiovascular Disease 53:471-479.

The authors argue that many of the health concerns of modern human beings (including heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, musculoskeletal disorders, sleep quality and immunodeficiency) are a direct result of current “daily physical activity patterns that are profoundly different from those for which we are genetically adapted”.

For nearly 85,000 generations, humans lived as hunter-gatherers. They expended a large number of calories each day while engaging in activities directly related to their survival; foraging, hunting, building and repairing shelters and confronting predators. Over the last 350 generations, humans have made dramatic ‘advances’, resulting in the agricultural and industrial revolutions, and more recently, the digital age. As life became physically easier, humans became more and more sedentary.

Estimates suggest that hunter-gatherers expended about five times as much energy per day as the average modern North American. Five times!

What types of physical activities did hunter-gathers engage in? Walking, jogging, sprinting, climbing, jumping, bending, digging and carrying. Women typically carried their children until they were about 4 years of age, often for long distances and for much of the day.

Their daily activities included short bouts of strenuous effort (lifting a heavy rock, pursuing wild game). They alternated high intensity days with less physically demanding ones (resting or remaining close to home after a big hunt). Spending much of their days outside, they obtained adequate sun exposure to stimulate their bodies to produce appropriate levels of vitamin D (vitamin D deficiency has been linked to cardiovascular disease).

Our ancestors were not only much more physically active than we are, they engaged in a wide variety of physical activities, including aerobic and anaerobic cardiovascular training and strength training, on a daily basis. Sounds like cross-training, doesn’t it?

The authors conclude that “natural selection shaped [humans] not to run marathons or exclusively lift extremely heavy weights but rather to survive and thrive as very active outdoor generalists in the wild…the cross-training… regimens that appear to be ideal for developing and maintaining fitness and general health…are similar to the lifestyle required of the typical hunter-gatherer”.

How can we apply these ideas to our modern lives? Clearly, we can’t go back to our hunter-gatherer days, but are there some ways we can incorporate their lifestyle into ours?

My daughter and I brainstormed and came up with the following;

  • Walk to the grocery store; buy only what you can carry home. Two moderately heavy grocery bags (cloth please!) will challenge your muscles and your heart.
  • Push your stroller; even better, carry your small child in a backpack or baby carrier. Think of this as progressive resistance training; you will get stronger as your body continually adapts to your ever-growing load.
  • Take the stairs, not the elevator. ‘Nuff said.
  • Ditch your remote control; get off the couch and change channels manually. (My children can’t believe that this is the way we used to do things…).
  • Hang your washing on the line to dry. Lots of bending, lifting and reaching to stretch and elongate your muscles. A little vitamin D won’t hurt either!
  • Leave a little earlier and walk your child to school. You’ll both be getting some exercise and the extra parent-child quality time is a wonderful bonus.
  • Make more of your meals from scratch. Washing, cutting, pounding, kneading and stirring use more energy than opening a box or can, or even worse, dialling the phone to order take out! Involve your children in meal preparation.

  • Plant, tend and harvest fruit and vegetables from your own garden. In addition to the physical effort required to grow your own food, you can be sure it’s pesticide and herbicide free.

Can you think of anything to add to our list?

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Looking for an inexpensive way to jump-start your journey to fitness and health? Join my online Bootcamp today! Get more info by clicking the image below.


  1. Get a dog and walk with them even if you have a nice, big back yard.

  2. Hi there, just stumbled on your web site from reddit. It is not something I would regularly read, but I loved your spin on it. Thanx for making a piece worth reading!

  3. OH I love this. The latter part of last year I was reading a lot of “paleo” sites and they talk about re-connecting our lives to more how our ancestors used to live.

    Plus, I carry my toddler all the time. I feel bad but he can be so clingy after I am at work all day.
    I love to park far away from the door of the store, am trying to ride my bike to more places (getting my husband on board is harder) 🙂

    and just try and be more hands on in my life. Wash more dishes by hand, wash car by hand, (I actually love housework for this reason) plus I have a small garden to tend too at night and weekends.


    • Thanks Cindy!
      I was actually thinking about the whole paleo diet thing while reading the article, but it slipped my mind while writing the post. Should do a bit about it, don’t you think?
      I’d be interested in hearing what you thought about it.
      P.S. My clothes dryer died yesterday so I may need to hang some clothes to dry myself!

      • I think you should! I love it’s principles…makes so much sense.

        YES, hanging clothes is very ancestor-ish!



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