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Part I: How Physical Activity Can Help Us Regain Our Ancestral Health 

Modern society has blessed us in many ways. Amazing technological advances have made us comfortable beyond the dreams of past generations. Paradoxically, we suffer from chronic, degenerative diseases virtually unknown a few generations ago. Rather than providing robust health, we see an onslaught of diabetes, obesity, cancer, heart disease, arthritis, allergies, asthma, and  so on. A vast amount of money is spent on a health care system that is overwhelmed with illnesses. Even the young are now nearly one-third over-weight and obese. (1)  Something is seriously wrong.

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Why Is This So? 

To answer this question we need to look at the human body and discover what is making it turn against itself in a time of plenty. The human body evolved over millennia. It grew and changed within very specific environments very different than our own. Is modern society thwarting what nature designed? In his seminal book The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease, Daniel Lieberman, professor of Biological Sciences at Harvard University, put it this way:

 “The fundamental answer to why so many humans are now getting sick from previously rare illnesses is that many of the body’s features were adaptive in the environments for which we evolved but have become maladaptive in the modern environments we have now created.” (2) (loc. 344)

Can this explain why we now see a surge in degenerative diseases such as Type II Diabetes?  Lieberman asserts that “diabetes is a growing problem because human bodies…were adapted primarily for very different conditions that render us inadequately adapted to cope with modern diets and physical inactivity.” (2) (loc. 343) The society we have created, especially since the Industrial Revolution, is an environment that makes available to us vast amounts of high glycemic industrial foods and a radically sedentary lifestyle. Instead of working to grow our own food we can order it from McDonald’s. The human body did not evolve to metabolize large amounts of sugars and vegetable oils or to be inactive. Our sedentary lifestyles are diametrically opposed to how we were designed to live. It could be said that our culture, or civilization itself, is killing us. iStock_000003169464XSmall

Mismatched Diseases

In the field of evolutionary medicine, the idea of mismatched diseases plays an important role in our understanding of the deadly explosion of “lifestyle diseases.”  Peter Gluckman and Mark Hanson, in their thoughtful work Mismatch, ask about our efforts to improve society:

“Could it be that in trying to make things better, we have become increasingly mismatched to our environment” (3) (p. 123).  There are limits to our ability to genetically adapt to the modern world.  Gluckman and Hanson call this the “Mismatch Paradigm.”

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From an evolutionary perspective “We have to recognize that much of the environment we inhabit is increasingly out of the range for which our body’s internal control systems were designed by the processes of evolution.” (3) (p. 195) The result: we suffer from diseases and conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity and myopia that are produced by this mismatch of environment and genes.  

Addressing the Mismatch

What can we do to address the mismatch?  Short of society restructuring itself, it comes down to your personal decision to increase daily activity. The benefits of exercise and activity are evident from a vast amount of scientific research. Exercise helps us deal with stress, it elevates our moods, increases cognitive function and replenishes our energy levels. It reduces our chances of suffering from all the degenerative diseases that plague us.  This is accomplished by allowing our bodies to act in ways for which they were intended. Our ancestors were physically fit because they had to be.  There were none of the labor saving devices we have grown accustomed to.  Since few of us are going to relinquish our cars, washing machines, TV remotes, electric power tools, etc., we need to find ways to integrate activity into our daily lives. There are a variety of fitness methods of exceptional value that enable us to overcome the activity limitations placed on us by society. Mark Sissons, (4) a well-known fitness author, suggests two things that address these limitations and are reminiscent of how our ancestors lived: 1 – Move frequently at a slow pace 2 – Lift heavy things and sprint occasionally The first relates to simply increasing the amount of activity we perform during our personal and work lives.  The second is a more intense metabolic exercise regimen for our workouts.

Daily Activity/Walking

Walking mimics what our ancestors did every day.  But being active throughout the day is a challenge.  Here are some easy ways to overcome a sedentary lifestyle:

  • Stop sitting as much as you do.  If you are sitting at your desk or couch, get up every twenty minutes and walk around, stretch, do isometrics.
  • Park at the farthest point in the parking lot from your office or store.
  • Stand when you are talking on the phone.
  • Walk the stairs rather than take the elevator.
  • Try to walk as much as possible during the day.  Look into the 10,000 steps plan.  You can read about it at The Walking Site (5). Think of it as a goal.
  • Take up dancing.
  • Participate in a sport.

The idea is to be as active as possible during your everyday life. Set your mind to being as active as you can each day. A sedentary lifestyle is a killer.

Metabolic Resistance Training (MRT)

shutterstock_62619541 Our ancestors very often had to exert short bursts of energy while hunting, foraging, and fighting.  They needed both muscular and cardiovascular power to do this.   MRT, for those of you who already exercise, can be very helpful. (6) Specifically, MRT can be described as any assortment of intense aerobic and anaerobic training techniques that have a direct cardiovascular and muscular effect.  It is a form of HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training). Current research has validated the effectiveness of this approach. It is generally for those with a reasonable level of fitness. It can be done with free weights, body weight, exercise-bands or combined with aerobic activities. MRT is:

  • Of short duration.  A session can be as short as 15 minutes, three times a week.
  • Performed in circuits with little rest between exercises.
  • Done with all-out effort.
  • Raises EPOC (excess post-workout oxygen consumption).  You burn fat long after your workout is over.

MRT burns fat and builds muscle simultaneously and in a fraction of the time of traditional fitness systems. It helps keep bones strong, reduces the effects of sarcopenia (age-related muscle loss) and builds a high level of fitness. One of the keys to why MRT is so effective is that is uses both the muscle and cardiovascular systems in a complementary manner. Gone are the days of long, tedious cardio workouts. To see what an MRT session would look like, see my article at Senior Exercise Central (7) and international fitness expert Brad Schoenfeld’s article on the basics of MRT (8). By employing these two approaches, a high level of fitness can be attained and the inertia of our modern lifestyles overcome. Part II will deal with the important role nutrition plays in helping us regain our ancestral health.

Dr. Robert M. Oliva


  2. Lieberman, D.  The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health and Disease. (2013). Pantheon Books.
  3. Gluckman, P. Hanson, M.  Mismatch. (2006). Oxford University Press.
  4. Mark Sissons:
  6. Braith, R.W. Contemporary Reviews in Cardiovascular Medicine, Resistance Exercise Training. (2014) Circulation, July, 2642-2650.
  7. Metabolic Resistance Training:


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