While this article’s title is no doubt a mouthful, the concept is actually very simple indeed. And I know exactly what you’re thinking – “Ancestral Wellness?” Yeah, right. My “woo-DAR” is for sure on high alert now. But hold on for just a minute and let me explain.
You see, modern-day hunter-gatherer societies serve as a particularly unique lens through which to view our distant physiological past. We can see quite clearly how the human body responds to the natural environmental niche our species evolved to occupy over hundreds of thousands of years. And as you might guess, the contrast between these modern hunter-gatherer societies and our own is quite striking indeed.
Hunter-gatherer societies suffer none of the disease-related ills that plague modern society. No obesity and no diabetes. No cardiovascular disease, chronic fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome, eczema, or acne. Psychological problems are nil. Quite simply, the members of these societies live vibrantly – without, by the way, any of the advantages of a modern healthcare system – then pass quickly and peacefully at advanced ages, free of the long-term degeneration and misery suffered by the elderly of “advanced” societies.
And as far as we can tell, our distant ancestors of fifty thousand years ago were also pictures of health. Save, of course, for the all too frequent accident, animal attack, or infection. Those who were lucky enough to survive into old age, though, also did so free of our modern-day scourges.
“Sure,” you’re thinking. “But what of athletic performance? Those guys couldn’t hold a candle to our modern athletes, right?” Well, it turns out that numerous, credible accounts have been documented on the strength and sprinting prowess demonstrated widely among members of these societies, both ancient and modern. For instance, “sprint prints” have been uncovered in Australia that indicate a man with an anatomically modern foot once dashed across a muddy, Paleolithic era plain at speeds rivaling those of a modern-day Olympic medal winner. Yeah, just some barefooted guy, covering distance over muddy, uneven ground, at current world-class speed. Hell, it’s likely he was even toting something at the time. Imagine if these guys and gals had access to even rudimentary strength and conditioning equipment and programming know-how.
In fact, the simple question of how primitive societies (both ancient and current) could be across-the-board healthier and athletically superior to “advanced” societies is the very question that sparked the entire paleo and ancestral wellness movements. And it turns out the answers to this question are indeed very simple:
These folks eat a nutrient-dense, grain and sugar-free diet and they perform a high degree of daily physical activity with occasional bursts of extremely intense work output. They spend plenty of time in the sun and their nightly slumber is long and blissful. They also have a strong sense of community that provides security and emotional comfort that, in turn, translates into greatly decreased chronic stress levels when compared to “modern lifestyle” contemporaries. That’s it. That’s the big “secret”.
So the question now facing those of us currently reveling in the high-life of an advanced society is this: can we, in fact, live in and partake of the awesomeness (and it is awesome) of modern society without falling victim to the inherent health-related shortcomings? In other words, can we match the vitality and athletic prowess of the primitive society, without sacrificing the modern lifestyle?
And there is, as you might expect, no simple yes or no answer here. All of us whose ancestry can be traced through a long line of modern societies have a good deal of genetic and epigenetic “karma” to overcome. But the short answer is that yes, we can all most certainly live a healthier, more vibrant, more athletically (and aesthetically) accomplished life than we are currently living. And all that it requires for us do so is some simple tweaking around the edges of our otherwise rockin’, gadgety, twenty-first century lives.
The study of hunter-gatherer societies, both modern and ancient, provide us with an abundance of clues and a direction toward which we can then apply the techniques of advanced science. And the questions and hypotheses that can be generated from a comparison of “advanced” and modern hunter-gatherer societies are many. For instance, what is it about grains in particular that is so detrimental to human health, and what is it about daily physical activity that is so beneficial? And this then begs the bigger question: how can we leverage modern science and modern technology to not only achieve a level of health and fitness that rivals that of our hunter-gather friends, but that far and away exceeds it?
And as it turns out, a return to the cave and spear is not only a silly notion, but also one that is completely unnecessary. It is a natural tendency of people who do not understand the broad reach (and limitations, too) of science to fall back on simplistic mimicry of an approach that has, in the past, proven to be effective. And while it may, in fact, be somewhat effective to follow this approach, it is by no means optimal, nor does it ensure effectiveness in the here-and-now. Self-help gurus tell us that if we want to succeed in a certain endeavor we ought to model the uber-successful who’ve come before us. The problem with this tact is that today is a new day, with a totally new set of pressures, advantages and “givens.” Yesterday’s solutions might not fair as well under this new set of circumstances. Better to use the past as a solid platform from which to test today’s theories against today’s new circumstances.
So how do I go about leveraging modern technology to achieve ancestral wellness, both for myself and for my clients? First and foremost, I prescribe a diet that is nutrient-dense, and grain, sugar, and legume-free. A diet that provides all the nutrition (and then some) that our super-active lifestyles require, without the food-related, chronic inflammation and fat-inducing fallout. I maximize gym-time ROI (return on investment) by utilizing smart programming and by being very non-dogmatic in exercise modality selection. In other words I mix-and-match state-of-the-art machines, free weights, and bodyweight exercises for maximum effect. Diet and exercise together comprise the bedrock foundation of my ancestral wellness prescription, and this translates into a highly successful and enthusiastic client base. The only way to survive in the hyper-competitive personal training business is to provide consistent, outstanding results, and at Efficient Exercise, business is booming.
But there’s more – and here’s where the “leveraging modern technology” really kicks in. I also utilize DEXA scans and blood work panels to ensure I’m still on the right path and to provide me with clues as to where I might want to tweak around the fringes to optimize my clients’ (and my own) health and fitness. I encourage vitamin D supplementation because even while I’m based in Austin, Texas, and we’re exposed to a decent amount of sun here, it’s still not enough to maintain serum vitamin D levels in the optimum range.
So no proven, technological, body-hack advantage is off the table just because it’s considered “modern.” Neuro-feedback, hormone optimization intervention, heart rate variability (HRV) training and recovery markers, and the holistic healing arts are all proven and available modern tools – tools made much more effective, in fact, once the “ancestral” exercise and nutritional bedrock has been established and solidified.
The bottom line is this: if you’re looking for that primal, beastly health and athletic advantage, don’t neglect the smartly selected, modern tools that will help you achieve that goal. Loin-clothed cave dwelling may be a fanciful lifestyle for some, but it is certainly not required in order to live the ancestral wellness good life.
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.