Chapter 23 Your Exercise  Routine

In our ancestors’ time, survival required a tremendous amount of physical exertion. And it wasn’t just about acquiring food. Water is pretty heavy. If they wanted to be even a couple yards away from a stream, our ancestors had to carry large bags or clay pots of water to keep from dehydrating. But water doesn’t give us any calories. So our ancestors were expending all this energy, and not getting any calories in return.

 Nowadays, we have water at the twist of a spigot or bottle cap.

 Of course, our ancestors weren’t just hunting and carrying water around. They had to move just to survive. For them, exercise wasn’t something they scheduled into their day; it was their day. From dawn until dusk, they were moving. And sometimes, even at night, especially when it came to celebrations.

 Women had an interesting routine. They traveled in groups as they walked to sources of water, food, and wood. While they walked, many of them carried their young. Their daily routine also involved digging, climbing, bending, and stretching. At the end of the day, they added more weight to the weight of their children as they carried loads of wood, food, and other items back to the camp. Once they were in the camp, they did such things as cook, clean, prepare shelter, and so on. And then, when the men returned to camp, they might dance into the night. 

 The point is our ancient ancestors didn’t have exercise programs. They didn’t lift a rock and set it down for three sets of ten reps. Instead, if the rock needed to be moved, they moved it; otherwise, they walked around it.

 Because movement was vital to our existence, and movement burns calories, our ancestors made sure they rested whenever possible. Only in rest can we repair our bodies from past exertions and prepare for future stress. If our ancestors didn’t rest, they’d burn out and die, or at least injure themselves and then die.

 A man who is worn out from a taxing hunt does not have the energy, the desire, nor the ability to engage in sex. Similarly, a woman who is worn out from foraging and looking after the young, will not be a fit guardian for the next generation.

 So Mother Nature made sure that humans rested and recovered as much as possible. Only the well-rested

ancestors had the strength and desire to engage in exuberant and exciting sex to assure that their tribe would continue to expand with new generations of young ones.

 And speaking of exuberances, our ancestors had to be flexible. They were always jumping, bending, stretching, and scrambling. Even their walking was nothing like what we experience on the treadmill. The terrain went up and down. They’d have to side-step and leap over obstacles. And they might have to chase a kid every once in awhile.

 Over thousands of years, humans moved all day long. Some days they pushed themselves; others they rested and recovered. And there certainly wasn’t any concrete under their feet.

 And so we have another Clash. Our bodies are designed to move and to conserve energy at the same time. But our environment keeps us in our seats hour after hour. This sedentary existence signals our bodies that a time of exertion is coming, so our bodies store up energy, day after day, month after month, year after year preparing for an event that never comes.

 When was the last time you had to run away from a saber-toothed tiger? Did you hunt and slaughter your own food? Did you cut wood to heat your house? You probably didn’t even build your house, harvest the materials needed for your clothes, or craft your tools.

 Unlike our ancestors, we have technology that has completely eliminated the need for physical activity in our lives. Worse, children no longer run and play. Teenagers don’t ride their bikes. Parking garages and elevators make sure we get as close as possible to our work desks without breaking a sweat. And entertainment comes into our living rooms like never before. Even those engaging in games sit in big chairs with controls in their hands.

When your bones and muscles are not working, they atrophy. Worse, as the body settles, necessary repair and nurturing molecular functions fail. 

 Now to be clear, while our ancestors were very active, they were also lean. They didn’t have to contend with the extra pounds many of us carry around. So before we begin a discussion about exercise, it is very important that we offer the cliché to consult your healthcare provider before beginning an exercise program. Yes, our ancestors carried heavy packs and lugged around growing children, but they weren’t pounding on hard pavement and they didn’t have sugars and chemically altered fats and carbohydrates flooding their bodies.  So make sure you talk to your healthcare provider before engaging in a new exercise program.  I often tell my patients who are more than 50 pounds overweight to go easy on exercise until they have lost 5-10% of their current weight.  This avoids extra trauma to the joints of the back and lower extremities.  I can also reassure them that when they have lost that amount of weight they will have more energy and less inflammation of their muscles and joints. 

 Doesn’t it make sense that the healthiest exercise routine would look a lot how our ancestors moved? After all, our bodies developed to accommodate the environment. And the most successful people passed on their DNA to us.  Most of our ancestors did not run or even jog for long distances. Instead, walking was a much better mode of movement over vast parcels of land. This is why many people maintain or lose weight when they walk 10,000 steps per day. Those steps represent about five miles of walking.  Add a little resistance training and more aerobic exercise, and even better results happen. The point is, a good exercise program doesn’t need to include massive workouts or complicated routines.

 I was recently at a fancy hotel and stopped by the fitness area. I was surprised to see people doing exercises that look surprisingly like the daily activities of our great, great grandparents. People were flinging heavy ropes, jumping onto platforms, swinging weights up from the ground into the air, kind of like I did with bales of hay when I was a teenager. If we were outside on the farm, these movements would seem normal. Inside of a fancy hotel, they looked silly.

 At first, I thought how odd that we now pay a lot of money to mimic our  forbearers, but as I thought about it, it made sense. For thousands of years, this is how we moved. If we want to work with our biology, what better way than to copy what our bodies have been doing for a millennia?

 In other words, a good beginning for an exercise program for ultimate health would be to pattern after our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Notice the variety in the following program. You will modify it for your lifestyle and interest of course, but it is important to have a program that looks similar to the following:

 The first thing to do is, whenever and wherever possible, seek physical activity. Don’t fight for a nearby parking spot; instead, park at the edges of the parking lot, maybe in the shade, but certainly away from where car doors will ding your car. Instead of taking the elevator, choose the stairs. Get up out of your desk every 90 minutes and stroll around the office. Look for ways to move.

 Your goal is to walk five to nine miles every day throughout the day. Calculate 2,000 steps for a mile. Many people find that wearing fitness bands motivate and help them achieve this goal. Throughout the day, you can check your progress. If it looks like you’re going to be short by the end of the day, perhaps a short stroll before going to bed will help use up your steps and help set aside the stress of the day.

Next, schedule time three days a week to walk in nature. Get off the concrete. Find grass or dirt trails to stroll along. Ideally, at least one of these walks should consume more than an hour of your time and involve hills. Of course, not all of us live where nature is nearby, but do the best you can.  It would be good to get a dog to accompany you on these walks. Genetic evidence suggests that dogs and people coexisted over thousands of years. We probably domesticated wolves to help with hunting. And studies show that dog owners stick with their exercise programs better. Those who walk their dogs are also more fit and do better at maintaining their weight. So, get a dog if you can.

 After a couple of months following this routine of walking several times a week, it’s time to begin cross training. Our bodies are amazing in their abilities to adjust to physical activity. After a few months of any exercise routine, you may adapt to those routine movements.  Other muscle may now need exercise also.  To work with your biology, it is best to do something different and exuberant a couple times a week.

 The important aspect of this part of the plan is to mix things up. Schedule one day a week to focus on resistance training and one day for aerobic training. Combine resistance and aerobic training on a third day.  Know your personality.  Some will enjoy the routine.  Others will get bored with the same exercise ritual. 

 Another goal is to have bursts of energy. On your resistance training day, move between weight machines without much rest in between. Stress out different muscles, and rest briefly in between sets. Work with your current state of fitness, and maybe work with a trainer who understands cross-training, your goals, and what is safe and healthy for you.

 On your aerobic days, your goal is not to simply jog, swim, or cycle. Remember, you want bursts of energy. Some exercise classes give you this. Maybe you can combine your walk in nature with a routine where you sprint, walk, jump, and do other things like pull-ups, sit-ups along the trail. Whatever you add into your program, make it fun.

 On the days you aren’t cross training, rest. On these days, just walk enough to get your steps in. Don’t feel guilty for not hitting the gym. This is the day to recover and prepare for tomorrow.

 Once a week, focus on flexibility. This can be on a rest day. Maybe you want to take a yoga or Tai Chi class. Or there may be a stretching program you have at home. The important thing is to focus on your flexibility at least once per week. You don’t have to break a sweat this day, and you certainly want to avoid strenuous exercise on this day. Spend at least 30 minutes stretching and twisting.

 Now, if you gain energy from others you may choose to involve others in your exercise program. You might join a group or invite people to exercise with you. There have been studies showing the benefits of social bonding during exercise. If your goal is to succeed in the long term, you might need social interaction in your exercise program. For others, you may find that “solo exercise” fits you better.  You may be looking for some rest from “others”.

 And add in some fun. Once a month, schedule time to celebrate and dance. Take a dance class or simply go to where they have music and get on the dance floor. If you’re taking a dance class as part of your aerobic program, this once-a-week celebration is not about being serious or getting it right; it’s about celebration. Have fun, laugh, and don’t worry about proper steps. And certainly don’t worry about what people are thinking about you.

How is that for an exercise program? Sounds fun and easy right? Better yet, if you schedule this program and make it a routine, it will be something you can continue the rest of your life. There isn’t a need for gym memberships or complicated workouts.

 Simply move every day; walk or jog outside a couple times a week, lift weights, and spend one day of week resting and stretching.

 And most important, make your exercise program work for you. And get started today.