Why do we need to exercise?

It depends on who you ask. And what you define as “exercise”.

If you posed the question to our distant ancestors, they would look bewildered. Why would anyone need to go out of their way to exert themselves or burn calories for recreational reasons? And why the heck would one need to “lose weight”?

They did what it took to get enough to feed themselves and brave the elements – gathered food, collected firewood, fetched water, built shelters, built tools, swam, ran and climbed to chase down wild game. Most of the day, however, they just sat around – doing nothing. They moved no more than they absolutely needed to and rested the remainder of the time.

The Hadza or Hadzabe roam the Serengeti in Tanzania. That article in the link describes their diurnal activities as part of nomadic bands of 25-30 individuals. Every second or third day, the women go around foraging for roots, vegetables, berries, rodents, eggs and small reptiles for a couple of hours a day. The men laze around sharpening their tools, starting a fire, generally shooting the breeze.

Once a week or so, someone will point to a distant hilltop: “I saw a band of baboons there. It’s time for a hunt.” Off they go and when they return, they have a feast. Everyone gorges on every part of the baboon. While that’s happening, the baboon’s skull has been thrown into the smoldering fire pit. When the rest of the animal has been polished off, the skull is retrieved and cracked open. The most prized part of the animal – the brain – is reserved for last.

It’s pure glorious fat and everyone gets a share. They laze around again for a few days through periods of underfeeding, even intense hunger – getting most of their calories from roots and berries, until it’s time for the next hunt. Every month or so, they pack up their stuff (which amounts to a small headload per person) and move on to another site to allow the vegetation here to regenerate.

Hadzabe returning from a hunt. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

This is how they lived 10,000 years ago and this is how they still survive in February 2012. Unlike “us”, their civilized cousins. We sit in front of screens all day. Some of us congregate with others in strange places lined with metallic machines to “exercise”. Then we go home to watch Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and raid the pantry and refrigerator full of plastic-wrapped wonders. Textured vegetable protein. Skinned, sanitized, boneless, hormone-injected chicken breast. Pop-tarts. No amount of money can buy us baboon brains, though. Which is why the Hadza have no use for currency.

This article by Cordain et al titled Organic Fitness: Physical activity consistent with our Hunter-Gatherer Heritage explains how much at odds we are with the evolutionary context in which our genes have adapted. Any one with a rudimentary interest in health and nutrition ought to read it from beginning to end.

Some excerpts:

“From the inception of the human genus, Homo, approximately 2.4 million years ago, our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers for approximately 84,000 generations. Survival within the hunter-gatherer niche required a large amount of daily energy expenditure in activities such as food and water procurement, social interaction, escape from predators, and maintenance of shelter and clothing. This lifestyle represents the exercise patterns for which we remain genetically adapted. Accordingly, humans are very capable of performing the wide array of physical activities and behaviors required of the hunter- gatherer.

Quantum improvements in technology, such as those that led to the Agricultural Revolution (350 generations ago), Industrial Revolution (7 generations ago), and Digital Age (2 generations ago) have resulted in large systematic reductions in the amount of physical work required by humans. In many cases, technological advancements have completely eliminated the need for physical activity in our daily routines; this has been especially true in the past few generations. Nonetheless, our innate exercise capabilities and requirements that evolved via natural selection over thousands of millennia remain essentially the same as for our Stone Age ancestors. Marked deviation from those indigenous exercise patterns is a likely factor for the genesis of many common degenerative diseases, such as obesity and type 2 diabetes.”

Our ancestors (and some hunter-gatherer societies today) maintained superb fitness simply through the varied physical demands required to function on a day-to-day basis.

The hunter-gatherers’ daily energy expenditures for physical activity typically were at least 800 to 1200 kcal or about 3 to 5 times that of modern sedentary individuals.

They walked long distances.

Although the distances covered would have varied widely according to hunting and foraging routines, cultures, weather, seasons, ages, etc., most estimates indicate that the average daily distances covered were in the range of 6 to 16 km.

They had bursts of moderate- to high-intensity activity involving sprinting, climbing, swimming. They were generalists who incorporated a wide range of activities that resisted gravity. They never “retired” and didn’t experience bone or muscle atrophy even at an advanced age. When they walked or ran, they preferred softer surfaces like grass or dirt. This provided lower impact-loading and afforded better joint protection. They mostly went barefoot or wore a thin piece of hide on their feet, which did not restrict normal foot-strike dynamics.

Foraging and hunting were conducted in groups, often with dogs for company. Large chunks of time were devoted to rest and recovery.

What does that mean for us?

It means we are well and truly ####ed.

Think about it.

  • We are programmed to stuff our faces when there is food around – which, in our case, is practically all of the time.

  • We are also programmed to expend as little energy as we can get away with. So we employ every stalling tactic in the book to justify our lack of movement. I don’t have time. I am too fat. I am thin and do not need to. I can’t work around my kids’ schedules. My joints ache.

In short, being a couch potato with a tub of ice cream in hand doesn’t make you a freak. It means you’re quintessentially human. It makes you less conflicted than a dear uncle of mine in Kerala. Every morning at 6 a.m. he leaves for a “morning walk”. He chats up everyone on the way, then makes scheduled stops at three chayakkada (tea shops) where he maintains monthly accounts. Well-fed and caffeinated, he saunters back home at 9 a.m for breakfast, after his daily “exercise”. He likes the idea of exercising, but he doesn’t like to exercise. He’s found an interesting workaround where he follows his doctor’s orders, while also doing what he likes.

While we have entered the digital age, our genes are still in analog mode.

A highly mechanized food chain ensures that we don’t need to do much at all to feed ourselves. In my last post about growing sunflowers for their seeds someone wondered if shelling all those seeds wasn’t “so much work”.

Why shell those darn seeds when I can buy them from the store? Why not take the path of least resistance? That’s a natural human response. What’s unnatural is how physically, intellectually and emotionally removed we are from what we actually consume.

Today, at the grocery store, I wondered how much work went into that bag of rice and that packet of sugar. A phenomenal amount. It’s done by a string of faceless, nameless others. We are totally, completely oblivious to it. We regard “work” as something we OURSELVES do, but imagine all the work that goes into growing and harvesting that rice, milling it, packaging it, transporting it and getting it to us. It’s a lot less work in terms of human energy and a lot of return in terms of caloric value to grow and shell sunflower seeds. How much energy did I expend getting into the car and getting to the store? Then dumping whatever I bought on a tray in the oven? Hardly any.

Even six generations ago, before electricity and refrigeration, our ancestors had to do a lot of the work that we get others to do for us today. Moving and sweating was not “optional”. It was the default state.

“Before we ran we climbed and before that we crawled and swam. Running was the act in the final making of our species’ body, and now we must run to be well, climb for excitement and swim for the satisfaction of the torso. Regular exercise, especially jogging, aerobics, swimming, and stretching, correlates with certain routines of life in hunting societies whose benefits are not only physical, but mental. The immense literature on the benefits of exercise needs no review except to point out that such activities are healthful for all peoples because our bodies were designed through millions of years of vigorous exercise.”
~ Paul Shepard, Coming Home to the Pleistocene

Irrespective of how fat or thin we are, our metabolic system demands exercise. Our mental well-being requires it. Physical exercise makes you a nicer, happier, a more trusting, socially integrated person. To put it differently, it makes you less of a jerk. There are a string of studies that demonstrate how exercise reduces the risk for certain types of cancers, helps you sleep better, improves your sex life and generally improves overall well-being.

Yet, we live in a culture where exercise is a plug-in – something elective that can wait until one is done doing other things. The inclination, even when people are battling obesity, serious health problems or simply chronic fatigue, is to tinker with nutriton. Not make a lifestyle change, not adapt a mindset about wanting to do whatever it takes, but tinker.

As for exercise, well, there’s not enough time. And when there is the time, there’s a stalling tactic. Meet Exhibit A.

For the first half of my life, I was a rotund little fatty who did not meet a sport or piece of exercise equipment I didn’t try to avoid. You can go through school and college in India without any exercise other than swinging your arms horizontally and vertically in PT (physical training ) class. Until then, it suited me fine. I knew it was time to change something when I lost both my parents within six months – seemingly healthy individuals – both to their first heart attacks. Holy cow, I needed to change my diet. And learn to exercise.

I tinkered and tinkered for years. Replaced sugar with maple syrup, then with agave nectar. Bent myself into pretzel shapes trying to make fat-free muffins with whole wheat. To stuff my face with after spending a lot of time on treadmills. Wasn’t it easier to simply ditch the muffins? No, said my lizard brain. Keep tinkering.

It was only when my joints really started bothering me was I was prepared to change my mindset, not just this or that aspect of my diet or my exercise regimen. It was only when I was prepared to do whatever it takes, that I began to see real change.

I needed to internalize that exercise is not optional. It is as vital to well-being as good nutrition. No excuses.

I needed to learn to

  • Stop being a bloody crybaby about having to work hard at getting fit.

  • Stop running on that treadmill.

  • Stop planting my butt on that weight machine to isolate a muscle group. That’s not how you function in real life.

  • Lift heavy objects.

  • Stretch.

  • Practice short bouts of intense activity.

  • Sleep for 7-8 hours daily.

  • Allow enough time for rest and recovery.

  • Ditch those cushioned shoes. (I practice almost everything – taekwondo, kettlebells and yoga – barefoot. Sprints are in minimalist shoes like Vibram Five Fingers.)

  • Stop sabotaging myself with gluten, fructose and vegetable oil.

  • Stop stuffing my face just because there’s food lying around. Three meals a day, no snacking.

  • Kaam chaloo, mooh bandh when some relative or friend asks me to “stop obsessing”. It’s a phrase we use in Bombay that translates to “keep working, keep your mouth shut”.

Who said our lives are easier than our ancestors’? We have to constantly battle against our instincts. It’s freaking hard being human.

- Bee

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Comments

  1. Brilliant Bee. Long time follower at Jugalbandi. Absolutely love the new site and direction. Look forward to reading more. Paul Shepard is the best. Thanks.

  2. Really awesome post ! Thank You !

  3. I have recently gone primal after suffering from candidiasis in October. Have cut out all grains (except occasional white rice), sugar and milk. I have been following you guys at Jugalbandi and would like to thank you for your research and food ideas. Can you post some more desi primal meal ideas?? especially breakfast! I am student and so on a budget and all this can get expensive, but I am trying with fabulous results so far (not that I was overweight to start with, but I feel so energized now)!! The only thing I have to do is get off my butt and start exercising!!

    • breakfast ideas -
      any kind of eggs plus avocado/guacamole plus any leftover veggies or salad. if you boil a dozen and keep it in the fridge, it’s a snap. it should last you six days if you eat two per day.

      or try the “fat bomb smoothie” posted at jugalbandi with some spinach or veggies blended in.

      • Thanks Bee for the prompt response! I just wish that the whole system was such that being Primal didnt have to be so expensive, but then if everything was ok we would have never been non-primal in the first place :)

        • Anuja,
          If it makes you feel better, how much is that worth? Unfortunately it is hard to quantify improved health benefits on an individual basis as there are too many variables.

          • I agree Jai, good health is priceless and valued when you have seen a ‘seemingly fit’ loved one pass away too soon, in my case my dad at age 52….

      • I like the idea of this kind of breakfast!

  4. Fabulous post!! Love your no muss, no fuss approach to healthy living. Not easy, but simple!
    I have been a long time reader and really enjoyed your posts & recipes on Jugalbandi. Glad that you are back in this new space.

  5. I am ashamed…

  6. Well stated and more importantly, well lived.

    I do not exercise to lose weight. I eat in ways to feed my body (rather than my lingering carb cravings) and I exercise in ways that help me to both move and feel better. Physically and emotionally. Everybody has to die some way eventually and I will be no different but I hope to have a higher quality of life, however long I have.

    I also appreciate very much the thought experiment around the work it takes to produce a bag of rice or packet of sugar. Anyone doubting the work that goes into getting food to a table ought to try and raise something to eat. A bit of parsley, a tomato, a pepper, anything. It is revelatory.

  7. Hi,

    I’ve started making small changes this year as well. We’ve switched to real fats and have cut down on sugar. I’ve started buying raw milk, kefir and chicken from a local farmer. I’ve started oil pulling and some low impact stretching exercises to start with. Eliminating grains is a challenge though. My daughter goes to a daycare and we can’t send any food from home. She eats processed snacks there and I cringe even thinking about this. Baby steps though and my goal until the summer is to focus on the changes we’ve made so far so they stick and to start my summer garden. Maybe the 2nd half of the year I’ll tackle grains. Between working full time and wrestling with a toddler, exercise takes a back seat though. My dad said to me yesterday, “Make it a priority and it will happen”. I should listen to him I think :)

    You guys have some great information here and on Jugalbandi. Keep up the good work!!
    Also, side note, every time someone comments here, it shows up in my twitter feed. Is that intentional?

  8. I am guilty big time here of never ever going to the gym or even using the treadmill at home. I hate exercising. But I love long walks, gardening and other things.. running after or with my kids or even mopping and scrubbing floor on all four is what I prefer over exercising :( well I eat healthy (most of the times) and so far have managed to keep fit. I like to feel my “agility” and I did notice that it starts to fade if I start eating unhealthy. great read BTW.

  9. Hi Bee and Jai
    I have been primal for close to 6 months. But a recent blood test has shown a rise in LDL cholesterol levels. I am still evaluating the next step. I focused on cutting out the grains and sugar (except for rice occasionally ) and increasing the good fats (avocado , whole eggs, coconut) for the first six months . Also have tried to avoid vegetable oils . I have been successful for the most part in doing so . I am a bit disappointed and discouraged at this time.

  10. I forgot to ask yesterday, what are your thoughts on supplements? Do you take any?

  11. Functional exercises should involve multiple muscle groups and be done in multiple planes of motion(ie turning) to maximize their benefit.

  12. Okay, I am going to be controversial.

    I have been following your other blog on and off. And your writing there seemed very convincing. You had done a lot of research and the glut of information on your blog that supported your arguments appeared to present a very thorough picture of what you were doing. But now, it seems like you had got it wrong after all. That you had sustained injuries and were never sated and suffered chronic fatigue.

    What is the guarantee that what you have set out with in this new blog – eating primal – wouldn’t be something that’s totally wrong? Of course, it does not concern me but you. And like you had said in your other blog, it is opinionated living and it is what works for you.

    However, could it be that all this seems a little compulsive? A touch orthorexic? That may be all this learned living is taking the joy out of eating? Whatever happened to the simple pleasure of sitting in front of a plateful of good food and savouring it?

    Again, these are mere observations and are not intended to offend.

  13. …hmmm…set me thinking there Bee…there s an aweful lot of information that tumbled on to unsuspecting me….i am taking it all in and ruminating on it..
    Great post though!!!

    Shobha

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  15. From today, mooh band and kaam chaloo!
    I’m a young Bombay girl who’s underweight currently. But I’ve decided that I’m gonna get super fit and start running and swimming.

    I came across jugalbandi and figure that I have a lot of read there!
    Thanks!

  16. I am back to jugalbandi reading after a long break and it is so refreshing to see the new website. As usual your post is worth reading and it is filled with the lots of motivation. Would take us few gymming sessions now..;)

  17. Thanks for any other informative website. The place else may just I get that kind of information written in such an ideal way?
    I’ve a challenge that I’m simply now working on, and I have been on the look out for such info.

  18. Thanks for finally talking about >Why do we need to exercise?
    — Nutrivore – A blog about ancestral health and functional fitness <Loved it!

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