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“Fitness” needs a makeover. It’s not about the size of your muscles, how fast you can run, or how much you weigh. There are plenty of physically fit people who are unhappy, eternally pessimistic, and drained of spirit. True fitness starts with emotional and spiritual wellbeing.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Workout Your Inner Caveman

by Mark Allen

We are all alive today because our genetics are well adapted to survive in the natural world. In fact very little has changed in our internal coding for many thousands of years. If we looked back at the lifestyle of our ancient ancestors we would see into a window that reveals clues about how all of us in the modern world can exercise to activate positive long-term changes in both health and happiness.

If we were to take a time machine back to a place before supermarkets and agriculture, we would see a world where our ancestors were fairly active. No one sat on the couch with the TV remote a thousand years ago. People didn’t drive to the convenience store to get a snack. They moved, steadily, throughout the day gathering food, hauling what they collected and of course on occasion making a quick retreat to the safety of a cave when a hungry predator was seen lurking around, looking at them as if they would be a tasty lunch. Historians have put their best estimates at the amount of terrain people covered daily at about three miles. And this wasn’t on nice paved sidewalks, but was rather on uneven, unpredictable landscapes that nature provided.

What does this have to do with developing lifelong fitness, losing weight, getting faster and simply feeling better? Everything! Our ancestors moved to survive. They moved steadily and they survived. They raced fast for one reason only: danger. They walked, collected, then relaxed and they survived and thrived. In the modern world, some exercise programs have very little thread of connection to this ancient philosophy, which has at its very essence lots of steady daily exercise with some lifting of loads and the occasional sprint for survival.

Most people use their exercise as an extension of what has become a very fast paced world. In other words, they exercise at very high intensities all the time and rarely do any of the moderate exercise that was a requisite for survival, one that enables our ancient genetics to release hormones in our bodies that give us that warm fuzzy feeling that says “Life Is Good!” In fact, high intensity exercise gets interpreted in our bodies as a sign of danger; that something bad is about to happen. This type of exercise releases another set of hormones in the body that are interpreted as high stress, that calls out “I am fleeing for my life”. It is not a sign that we are having a good workout!

Steady exercise at moderate levels is related to walking, jogging, swimming, cycling, hiking, etc. All at heart rates that are also moderate in intensity, that enables a person to have a sense that what they are doing is as much a chance to let their minds run free of what might be bothering them as it is a workout for their body. The crossover point comes when the intensity moves up a few levels and suddenly you are no longer gaining insight into life’s problems and absorbing life’s wisdom, but rather are having to focus all your attention into getting through your workout. This is a sign that you may have gone from the steady exercise diet that brought health and happiness to our ancestors to the one that was a high signal to get out of a dangerous situation.

In our book we give specific guidelines about how you can monitor your heart rate to make sure you stay on the healthy side of the intensity line when exercising, as well as how to sprinkle your training with just enough “survival” efforts to sharpen you for life. But short of using those parameters, the takeaway thought for your exercise is that if it is enjoyable, if it is at a level of intensity that allows you the ability to reflect about your life and to absorb the wonders of nature that surround you. If that is the case, you are probably working those ancient genetics that give a good sense about life, helping you gain long-term fitness, lose weight, shape up and let the worries of daily life slip away.

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