Thursday, July 14, 2011

PALEO FITNESS: The Key To Athletic Longevity (Part 1 of "The Paleo Series")

"Every morning in Africa a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the lion or it will not survive. Every morning a lion wakes up and it knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle or it will starve. It doesn't matter if you are the lion or the gazelle, when the sun comes up, you better be running." ~African Proverb

Paleolithic man. The image conjures up brute cave people...nomadic, moving from forest dwelling to dwelling. Who were they? What were their lives like? Did they leave the modern world with any clues as to how to unlock our own potential?

During my undergraduate years of pursuing a degree in Medical Anthropology, I was exposed to these very questions. Year after year, from India to the Amazon, from the rainforests of the Maya to the Celtic coastlines, I sought the answers to these queries.

Amongst temples, towering over the forest canopy to ancient stone ruins, I sought the expertise of scholars who probed archaeological remains for clues to our past. Two highlights of my academic career: working with Geo-Physicist, Gregg Braden (who edited my B.A. thesis for me) and interning with Dr. Cynthia Robbins (U. of Pennsylvania), head of the Maya "Xunantunich" archaeology project on the border of Guatemala and Belize. These two brilliant scientists had a lens on our ancient past that few have had the privilege to view. Working with both of them, throughout my academic years, was an unimaginable treat for me.

"Xunantunich," where I completed part of my undergraduate research, outside of Succotz Village, Belize

As I began to wonder at the sheer genius of subjects such as archaeo-astronomy, Mayan calendrics, and the architecture of the ancients, I began to ponder what their daily lives were like. Granted, depending on culture, environment, food/water sources, etc. it varied from continent to continent, but there were underlying themes which were woven throughout all cultures that I had the opportunity to study.

It mattered not, whether I was studying with the Quechua natives abiding on the floating islands of "Lake Titicaca," Peru (16,300 ft.), or the Celtic coastal fisherman, inhabiting sea-level villages along the British Isle coastline. Underlying primal needs were a necessity. Physical exertion was part of having those needs met to ensure survival. A "lazy" person amongst the tribe was not tolerated. Water needed to be carried, foraging and gathering to occur, and the hunt to feed the entire village was not optional.

Current Medical Anthropology states that "The average Paleo ancestor walked/hiked/ran up to 9 miles daily to complete life tasks." Pushing, pulling, lifting, hauling, squatting, climbing, crawling, jumping, all these were functional movements that were used, in one capacity or another, to assure survival for the whole. These movements were executed, according to Medical Anthropology experts, at high-intensity for short bursts of time. In other words, what we term "anaerobic exercise" today.

Man Climbing Tree In The South Pacific For Coconuts

Anaerobic exercise has been, up until recently, the "neglected orphan" of the exercise world. Why? Perhaps its because its difficult. Perhaps its because our culture has become "cardio crazed." Regardless, anaerobic activity is a vital necessity for any type of long-term athletic training for modern man. Our ancestors lived in a nomadic way. Sprint running after game, running away from being game, and the like were all necessary components of day-to-day existence. Modern man likes what is termed LSD types of exercise: "Long Slow Distance." Is this a "bad" thing? Of course not. But, from an anthropological perspective, there were very few members of a tribe that were allotted the role of being "messenger" or the "pony express" across vast distances. In other words, the majority of tribe members got their daily exercise through functional, anaerobic movements, combined with intermittent distance walking or hiking for water or food. There were 1-3 people (depending on the size of the population) that were given the task of carrying messages throughout the kingdom, to neighboring tribes, or to make far-reaching announcements.

Today, with modern science and technology, any individual can train to become an ultra-runner, or endurance athlete. This is an amazing exercise physiology phenomenon. One that has never been seen before historically. However, along the way, anaerobic exercise was a bit forgotten. Thanks to exercise outfits such as "CrossFit," P90x, and an emphasis on interval training and plyometrics, we are beginning to understand the relevance of it. We are realizing the need for our body's metabolism to train like our ancestors.

Alaskan Inuit Walrus Hunting

When we delve into the world of the human need for movement, we find common denominators the world over. There are fundamental movements that are necessary for life to continue. We call these, in modern day, "functional movements." Do you think of a deadlift as a "macho" thing to do? Does it sound a little too "Gold's Gym" for you? Think that sounds "hardcore?" The reality is you deadlift everyday. Whether its picking up your child, the groceries, or loading something into your car, the capacity to move loads across a distance is of vital importance. In other words, these movements: pushing, pulling, climbing, jumping, crawling, squatting, run-sprints, lifting, rolling, etc. should be considered the "ABC's" or fundamentals of any exercise regime. They will only make your favorite sport of choice that much stronger. Why? There is something in our genetics that says that these movements perpetuate ongoing survival of the species. They are "familiar" to our bodies, no matter where you live in the world. They could be considered "common denominator" movements.

Maasai Jumping Contest

To execute functional movements, at high intensity, for short bursts of time is even better. It keeps your metabolism "on its toes" to where your body recognizes its time to move into a "hyper" state of fitness.

It has been said, by exercise physiologists and medical anthropologists, that the Maasai tribe have "some of the strongest knees the world has seen." Vertical movement, executed at high intensity (see previous blog post on "Knee Health") is one of the most powerful and healing movements one can do to strengthen and/or heal the knees, and supporting lower limb muscle groups. It is a no wonder that NBA coaches fly to Kenya and northern Tanzania to recruit potential future star basketball players. Generation after generation of Maasai have been jumping for health, to participate in cultural ritual, and to assure continuation of tradition.

The infamous Maya ball court games: Deadly. Political. Tradition. The ball court was the "leveling field" of political dispute. Only the most skilled, and trained warriors of the classic Maya era had the last say at the end of the game. This was a match over kingdoms and commerce. The contestants saw themselves as the most elite and physically fit specimens of their people. "The sport of kings," as its been referred to in historical texts.

What little information we have of the warrior-athletes who participated in such a pivotal political "game" of strength and will is a testament to functional fitness. Run-sprints, at high intensity, up and down the ball court, along with long jumps and high jumps have been indicated in records. To be able to run, at high speed, with the ball, or to block the ball (such as in soccer) was of utmost importance. The stakes were high. Winning could not be considered optional. Kingdoms, crops, temples, and trade were all at stake. The team that lost didn't get the opportunity to say "Good Game" to one another at the end. Fitness was paramount. Their very lives, and the lives of their loved ones, depended on it. Training was everything.

Maya Ball Court Game

Fitness, in eras gone by, was rarely utilized for just enjoyment. It had to be maintained to survive. We now have the modern luxury of "enjoying" our runs. We can run with no other reason in mind, other than to feel the wind on our face. The majority of the time we're not hunting for food, or being chased. We aren't obligated to remain fit to survive the way "Paleo" man was. This is both a pro and a con. The pro? We get to experience the way our bodies move for the sheer bliss of being alive in them. The con? A hypnotic "web" of laziness has ensued amongst industrial nations that we're now paying the price for. This is the first time in history that parents are outliving their children. The national obesity crisis, in the U.S., has reached an all-time high. Doctors are now stating that 90% of disease is preventable through healthy lifestyle habits. Yet, the fast-food eating crisis has put out a subliminal message the across the globe: you don't need to hunt or gather food anymore. Sit back, and we'll take care of it all for you.

Poster From The Movie "Super-Size Me"

You may not need to hunt or forage for food any longer, but your body still has the need to train like it does. Genetics and ancestory change little over time. Your body still has the same functional fitness needs as your ancestors...and their ancestors before them. All the way back to the first inhabitants.

To train against the cultural lethargy of sedentary living and working environments is a mental discipline. It is one that cannot be ignored. Not if good health, and quality of life, is to be maintained. To move into a state of deliberate athleticism is the next level of fitness.

"CrossFit" gives 10 basic principles that should be utilized in any high-intensity, functional fitness program. They are:

10 Elements of Fitness

"According to the "Crossfit" ethos, there are 10 components of fitness. All of these points can be trained, while some of them are more down to genetics and god given ability. All the more reason to Train Your Weaknesses. Hammer the things you can, the things you don't want to, and often!" -Coach Glassman, Founder of "CrossFit"

1. Cardiovascular/respiratory endurance- The ability of body systems to gather, process, and deliver oxygen.

2. Stamina - The ability of body systems to process, deliver, store, and utilize energy.

3. Strength - The ability of a muscular unit, or combination of muscular units, to apply force.

4. Flexibility - The ability to maximize the range of motion at a given joint.

5. Power - The ability of a muscular unit, or combination of muscular units, to apply maximum force in minimum time.

6. Speed - The ability to minimize the time cycle of a repeated movement.

7. Coordination - The ability to combine several distinct movement patterns into a singular distinct movement.

8. Agility - The ability to minimize transition time from one movement pattern to another.

9. Balance - The ability to control the placement of the body's center of gravity in relation to its support base.

10. Accuracy - The ability to control movement in a given direction or at a given intensity.

Here are a few picture examples, illustrating above "CrossFit" principles and functional movements:









"Paleo Fitness" means that you pretend you still have the need to maintain the above listed 10 elements of physical fitness, even though our society doesn't live a "primitive" or "paleo" lifestyle. It means to consider the ways of our ancestors, and how their survival mechanisms have allowed us all to get to where we are today; to be here at this moment. Obviously, they did something right. They were "hardy" enough to withstand ages of living amongst harsh environments. Just because we have a remote control in our hand doesn't mean we can't benefit from lessons of the past.

"Paleo" means to consider the natural world, and its inhabitants. Observe the animals in your surrounding eco-system. Take note of the functional movements they employ for survival. Mimic those. Get in touch with the world around you (literally) by climbing trees, rocks and boulders. Jump in the tall grasses, swim in the vast lakes. Run trails, up them, down them, explore them. Hike your surrounding areas foothills. Move your body in as many ways as possible. Vary intensity and terrain. Relish in the amazement of your body, and all the varied ways it can move...up, down, all around. Most of all, enjoy this beautiful planet that we live on, like its the first time you've ever see it. Ponder the ways a child explores his/her environment. Wonder, excitement and curiosity permeate every cell of their being. To be alive is the greatest miracle of all.