Thursday, February 16, 2012

"Paleo Physical Activity"?

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?


  1. What they neglect to mention is that paleo humans didn't live all that long. ;-)

    They also didn't work any harder than they had to. I've been told that if you look at hunter-gatherer societies that are still around, that they actually work very few hours -- much fewer than our standard 40/week.

    While I personally believe the paleo crowd is closer to the mark nutritionally than the low-fat crowd, sometimes it all seems to be a desire to go back to some "pure" time. News flash -- there is no Eden, no golden age that our bodies were fine-tuned for. Actually, the more I learn about the human body, the more I'm amazed it works at all.

  2. Modern day "paleos" don't seem to be runners, more likely weightlifters. I can see the appeal, though when I started exercise for real, I was too large and didn't want to risk my knees, and now I'll sprint for the bus occasionally, but not much more. It feels quite good, but not for this body. However, nor are we built for the sedentary lives that many of us lead -sitting at desks all day, driving everywhere, passive entertainment, etc. In the end, you gotta do what you like to do, and for many many many (not just weight losers/maintainers), running it is.

  3. hence the barefoot runner Next thing we will all be in grass huts and eating with sticks. I agree with the majority of what the paleo diet processed meats or processed grains (as far as I know) I stick to what I call the whole food way of eating. I do have times when I will have stuff that is processed. I still intend to enjoy life. You can do that, and keep your weight down. move, eat happy.

  4. We probably have evolved a bit since paleo days so I don't think grains are that bad for us. But I agree processed foods are not good for us. And I TOTALLY agree about walking. I am ALL for paleo exercise!

    But there is something else about Paleo man. Meals were not major social occasions. If Paleo man was hungry - he ate

    1. The evidence says otherwise. You need a group to bring down big animals and it's probably because of this that we evolved to eat communally at mutually agreed times rather than eat alone when the opportunity arises, as many other animals do.

  5. I didn't think my measly 2-mile walk each day was doing anything related to weight maintenance (post weight loss). Then I was laid up with severe back pain for several weeks. Net gain=8 lbs. Interesting. Who knows how much of that gain was hormonal (pain related) and how much was from being completely sedentary and how much was related to quitting a couple medications. Some stuff remains a mystery. The weight gain doesn't bother me, although it was a bit of a surprise (I weigh myself once every couple months, on average). Life is imperfect. There will always be ups and downs (pun intended). I'm glad to be able to walk again because I ENJOY getting out. It improves my sleep and mental health. :) I eat on the lower-carb side because it helps to stabilize blood sugar and I feel better this way. I also enjoy being 120+ lbs lighter for a whole bunch of reasons. I doubt paleo humans worried about weight. I doubt my great great grandparents cared (or concerned themselves) about their weight. I think they had more pressing issues to worry about.

  6. ". . . 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."

    I've heard it described this way too, and I scratch my head. Lean meats. Hmmmmm. I don't know about your family, but I would guess that my ancestors left the gazelles and dear alone and whalloped a possum or squirrel for the barbecue: something slow and fat. Some current day cultures that avoid the modern lifestyle feast on whale and chew the blubber for pleasure.

    I don't know the reasoning behind forgoing dairy either. I'm just not clear on it. The logic feels incomplete to me.

    I can see that before the advent of the oven, grains would be a last resort. But hmmmm.

    I'm totally with you on the exercise, by the way. It's part of the puzzle that gets NO attention. It's just assumed that a weight-loss maintainer will be able exercise at a pretty high intensity forever, and when she can't she'll compensate on the intake side, which is also ignorant. We do not acknowledge that our endocrine systems put up a battle to return to highest established weight. I know the paleo people claim to have conquered hunger, but I don't believe them. I think they manage their insulin triggered hunger better than most people, but they haven't figured it all out yet.

    Meanwhile, what are we to do? I think squatting sounds like a great idea. Wish I could still do it.

  7. Similar to you, RNegade, aerobic exercise is my antidepressant of choice. A few hundred miles & several yrs into this consistent-exercise regimen of mine, & I've lost about 12 lbs net...
    Totally w/Deb on the "fundamentally endocrine" concepts (I don't think I could lose below the weight I was when I had my thyroidectomy even at starvation levels).
    I'm working on my squats despite the distressing Rice-Crispy sounds made by my knees ;-) !

  8. Actually, the paleo adherents I know exercise in what is (IMO) an unsustainable way. They're pretty anti-low intensity aerobic activity (such as walking). The paleos I know think that's an uber waste of time. They're all into Crossfit and I can practically guarantee you that over time there is no way most people can keep that up as they age without a sidelining injury. There's just so many burpees that aging knees can withstand without finally crying uncle.

    I know first hand that years and years of advanced exercising will catch up with joints in the mid- to late-forties and I didn't even do anything as hard-core as Crossfit - just your regular step aerobics, hi/lo aerobics and weight training (mostly circuits). Since my knees and IT bands, not to mention feet and recurring calf muscle microtears all protest mightily if I go too hard or too often, I myself struggle with keeping up an exercise routine intense enough to avoid weight creep.

    At this point, I don't think anyone has the answers but boy, oh, boy how I wish someone did!

    Some aspects of Paleo I think are great (i.e. whole foods, no processed, etc.) but given that Paleo man was lucky if he lived to 30 or so, I don't think we can really say that style of living was the path to longevity.