Image source: Arizona Caveman
Just bear with me. I'll get to the point...
A number of people swear by some version of the "paleo" diet. I'm not hugely familiar with the ins and outs of this diet, but the general idea (as I understand it), is to eat the way our ancestors did: lots of lean meats and fish, little to no grains ("Wheatbelly") or dairy and certainly no processed, sugary foods. The premise is that our bodies have basically not evolved much since paleolithic times and have not adapted to "modern" foods. We thus have trouble digesting such food groups as dairy, wheat and sugar and should therefore avoid these food groups to the best of our ability to maintain optimal health and weight.
This post has nothing to do with coming down either for or against the paleo diet. Instead, I would like to look at taking the principle that we should "eat like cavemen" and ask ourselves whether it is even more important to "move like cavemen".
A spate of recent and not so recent posts by weight loss warriors has got me wondering. So many people (especially women), who have made huge (some might say, superhuman) efforts to lose weight now find themselves increasingly deprived of one of their strongest weapons in the fight to keep the pounds off: exercise.
Their bodies--in particular their knees--have made it clear that "enough is enough". They are forced to cut back on running, Zumba, squats, lunges--all the heart-pounding exercises that enable them to maintain weight loss without starving...because, as it becomes horrifyingly clear to the tiny minority that actually gets the "excess" weight off, they cannot eat like "normal" people. The number of calories needed to maintain a reduced weight is usually much lower than the number of calories that someone who has never dieted can eat to maintain that same weight.
Why are our knees (and sometimes our backs and sometimes our hips...) so incredibly unhappy after a few short months or years of modern exercise? I would posit this has less to do with the excess weight that we may or may not have carried and a lot more to do with exercise for weight loss maintenance.
Common sense tells me that our ancestors were not lacing up their runners to pound the pavement X hours per week. Yes, they were running. But they were running because they had to: to catch prey to eat (these are the men running, mostly), to escape from animals trying to eat them (everyone running) and to catch little paleo people about to jump into the rapids and be carried off to their death (mostly women doing that kind of running). Nor were our paleo ancestors running on pavement. They were running barefoot on hard earth, grassy plains, sand (every tried to run on sand? it's tough). They certainly didn't have a training schedule.
What else were our ancestors doing? Squatting. Not "squats" as in exercise, just sitting around squatting, waiting for tasty animals to wander by or squatting as they picked food out of the ground or picked lice out of each others' hair.
[Fun digression, now: I often wonder whether reincarnation has any truth to it. I have a friend who has a PhD. in Latin American studies. Her research deals with Guatemala at the time of the Spanish conquest. One of her parents was from England and the other was born in Canada, though they were both of eastern European origin. There is not a drop of native Guatemalan blood running in her veins. Yet, for as long as I've known her, long before she went to Guatemala for the first time, she has been a squatter. In fact, she reminds me very much of what I imagine a Guatemalan Indian woman would look like, squatting by the fire cooking a meal for her family.]
Squatting is great for keeping the hips flexible. Probably the worst thing that ever happened to our hips was the invention of the chair. Sitting in chairs has robbed us of so much natural flexibility, which is especially important for women in childbirth. Hmm, ever wonder why the rate of C-sections is so high in the Western world (and I say this as someone who has had 2 C-sections and would have no doubt died the first time around had this surgical intervention not existed)?
Oh, and perhaps the most important thing our ancestors were doing on a regular basis was walking. They probably didn't take any strolls but I'm sure they walked up a storm. They were busy just trying to stay alive. And that involved sometimes walking very long distances. Back in paleo times, they didn't have the wheel, never mind cars to get them to the mall (what mall?)! They walked.
What's a person to do in our modern world?
Honestly, I don't have a magic solution that will work for everyone. What I do know is what I see: people will go to great lengths and often dangerous lengths to take and/or keep the weight off. Not to make the body healthy, just to fight against a higher weight.
There's so much more to health than burning calories and there's so much more to physical activity than pounding the pavement and pounding your knees. Your knees may accept the pounding, but many knees will not. Paleo physical activity, anyone?