Living a 1940s Lifestyle to Build 21st Century Fitness

Few of us live a truly paleolithic lifestyle, but that’s okay. We can look to our not-so-distant ancestors for some other healthy alternatives.

Many people discuss being paleo, but I only know a few who actually live a paleo lifestyle. Becca and Winslow Jenkins have multiple egg-laying hens and forage, hunt, and fish for food. Eric Frohardt hunts large and small game in the Colorado mountains with a bow. He carries his prize back on foot (elk can weigh over a thousand pounds and it takes multiple trips to carry it out of the mountains).

An anonymous ledger drawing of Kiowa Indian hunting elk on horseback, circa 1875-1877. Now that’s paleo.

These examples of the paleo lifestyle set the bar quite high. It would be nice to aim so high, but a 1940s lifestyle might be more attainable.

A Picture of the 1940s

In the 1940s, people had fewer modern-day conveniences. In truth, these “conveniences” are actually inconvenient for our long-term health. Back then, people tended to walk more and use the stairs, and household duties were more difficult.

Here are some daily activities that make life more inconvenient, but can make us healthier in the process.

A Reel Lawnmower

I recently moved into a house after years of condo life. Instead of purchasing the industrial gas lawn mower (which somehow is supposed to make me more manly), I purchased the 1940s-style reel mower made by Great States, a company based in Indiana since 1895. Mowing the lawn is now an enjoyable exercise activity. I listen to books, which I could not do with a gas powered mower. It is like a mini sled-push workout. If you don’t have a lawn, you could always find someplace that needs to be mowed (vigilante lawn mowers – VLM t-shirts coming soon!).

Dominic Matteo adding more resistance to his reel mowing exercise.


Years ago, I made a rule that I would always take the stairs if it was an option. At the airport, it is liberating to have the big empty staircase to use, while most everyone plops on the escalator. At work, I am lucky to have the opportunity to walk up to my fourth floor office. If your office is on the 27th floor, you could always take the elevator to the 23rd and walk from there (and over time, lower your starting floor). The hazard to this rule is that staircase doors are often locked. But if you are the type of person who likes to go against the grain, then taking the stairs is for you.

Walk Further

By parking farther away, you can get a lot more exercise. It feels especially nice after dinner. The farther you park, the more you can enjoy the nice summer evenings. At work, try to find a bathroom that is not close by – even better is if it is a floor or two away.

Exercise or Stretch While Watching TV

I read somewhere that Bruce Lee was always working on stretching. You could easily find multiple static stretch positions where you can relax while reading or watching TV. Although, since the article is about living the 1940s lifestyle, I guess we would be reading or listening to the radio. So, it might not be a bad idea to get rid of the TV (or tablet or phone). I lived for a few years without a TV and I remember this time as being much more productive.

Listening to the radio is much more conducive to staying fit.

Move More

An interviewer once described Jason Statham as never sitting still during an interview. He attributed this extra activity as a way that Jason stays lean. One of the benefits of a standing desk is that it allows a person to wiggle and move around more. If you are more active in your “sedentary” activities, you can add a great deal of conditioning to your day.

Carry More Stuff

At the grocery store, try to use baskets. You can get a free farmer’s carry workout that progressively gets heavier as you shop. Carrying a basket also gives you a lot more mobility to move around the store. I have broken many “tackles” as I maneuver between carts.

Play Outside

Kids in the 1940s were often outside playing. Why shouldn’t we be outside more this summer, too? The more you are outside, the more likely you will be active. Take an evening walk, grab a ball, or play with your pets. You can lower your energy bills by enjoying the outdoor air and saving on air conditioning, as well.

People back then spent a lot more time being active outdoors.

Play in the Dirt

Planting a garden can help you get exercise and provide organic vegetables to your diet. Another potential benefit is that it might keep you slim by changing your gut bacteria. Research has found that bacteria from the soil are more prevalent in slimmer people. Soil bacteria also affects our neurotransmitters and might protect us from depression and anxiety. There is a great deal more to say about the linkage between gut bacteria and our health. We might benefit from using fewer hand sanitizers and having more dirt on our hands while we eat.


In the 1940s, people tended to eat less processed food. Whether you are paleo, vegetarian, or anything in between, adopting this approach can be beneficial. Although it is more inconvenient to prep your food in this way, it is likely you will be healthier. Ideally, it would be great to think about going to the fruit stand and the butcher shops of the 1940s. It is unlikely that the 1940s grocery stores had as much processed food (although, stay away from the Crisco).

Going to the Gym

The gyms today look a lot more like gyms did in the 1940s and earlier. Functional, full-body movements have grown in importance over machine like isolation. There are good uses of isolation type of exercises (balancing out weakness, injury rehabilitation), but barbell, kettlebell, and gymnastic bodyweight exercises are more efficient uses of time.

A gymnasium from the early 20th century.


Although we might not want to live with the education, healthcare, and technology of the 1940s, we might benefit from some of the other lifestyle basics that era. By being as physically active as people in the 40s, we might not need to do as much conditioning in the gym. Our time in the gym could be better spent on strength activities.

We might also benefit from the simpler nutritional habits of eating less processed food. Just as many of us would not want to live 100% paleo (the wild animals from that time are quite dangerous), we might not want to give up all of our modern conveniences. But by choosing to live less “conveniently,” we might wind up more physically fit.

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Photo 1 by anonymous, via Wikimedia Commons.

Photos 3 and 4 courtesy of Shutterstock.

Photo 4 by James Steakley, via Wikimedia Commons.

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