Was early man pushing cars or running marathons?

There is no denying that physical activity is vital to good health, but just what did our Paleo ancestors do for exercise? It may have been strenuous, but how can this activity be compared to our modern lives?

In BBC Two’s ‘Eat to Live Forever‘ Giles Coren attended ‘Primal Con’ run by Mark Sisson of Mark’s Daily Apple mentioned in an earlier post on this blog.

Eat to Live Forever with Giles Coren by Catadecal

During the convention, Coren joins in on paleo style exercise which involved pushing a car and ‘the sledgehammer workout‘. Where did a creative interpretation of Paleolithic activities arise from? Other online self-proclaimed fitness gurus have developed numerous ‘systems’of exercise that our bodies were ‘designed’ or ‘programmed’ to do. These include MovNat by Erwan Le Corre, Primal Fitness by Greg Hetherington, and the Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson to name a few.

All of these programmes differ from each other to a certain degree but are unified in promoting largely bodyweight only exercise, sprinting, interval training, and some form of lifting which, supposedly, is akin to the types of activities early man would have performed. Interval training is promoted as part of a ‘paleo’ lifestyle, similar to our ancestors having to run intensely for short periods of time to escape from predators and to hunt effectively.

Physiological studies into the effectiveness of interval training compared with traditional long distance endurance cardio training have produced some very impressive results including increased resting metabolic rate for at least 24 hours post training and increased insulin sensitivity of up to 28% in males. The degree to which participants benefitted from HIIT however, was affected by their individual genetic makeup and therefore, we must consider the role of genetic variability in our approach to exercise, and possibly, within the wider spectrum of diet. However, whether or not high-intensity interval training style activity actually occurred during the Paleolithic is debatable, and it is perhaps misleading to use an evolutionary basis for promoting a certain type of exercise.

Paleoanthropological perspectives on running

As mentioned in an earlier post, Harvard University paleoanthropologist Daniel Lieberman argues that humans were evolved to run long distances. According to Lieberman, humans ran long distances in the Savannah to scare large animals (ungulates) into sprinting. While these ungulates were good at running quickly for a short period of time, they would eventually overheat and experience exhaustion. Hunter-gatherers were, subsequently, able to successfully hunt and access meat by practicing this technique. This would contradict the view that humans alternated between short and long rest and activity periods during hunting. He argues that evidence for this is present in our own anatomy as we are biomechanically optimised to run barefoot through our shorter and easy to stabilise toes, the size of our glute muscles, and our achillies tendons that allow us to access energy at the appropriate time when we run. Our ancestors may have lead very active physical lives but that doesn’t mean we should all participate in intense physical activities. Pushing a car or running for miles is not for everyone. We need to consider what would be sensible and safe for our modern lifestyles and individual levels of fitness.


Bramble, D.M., Lieberman, D.E. 2004. Endurance running and the evolution of Homo. Nature.

King, J.W. 2001. A Comparison of the Effects of Interval Training vs. Continuous Training on Weight Loss and Body Composition in Obese Pre-Menopausal Women. Unpublished PhD Thesis. East Tennessee State University.

Metcalfe, R.S., Babraj, J.A. Fawkner, S.G., Vollaard, N.B.J. 2011. Towards the minimal amount of exercise for improving metabolic health: beneficial effects of reduced-exertion high-intensity interval training. European Journal of Applied Physiology.


Evolved to exercise – but how?


Image by Andy Wright

Obesity is now a global problem

According to the World Health Organisation, the global obesity rate has more than doubled since 1980 and 1.9 billion adults were overweight in 2014 while over 600 million of these were obese. Sedentary modern lifestyles present a unique problem for the human metabolism. We have evolved to be attracted to high-energy foods and sugars. During the Paleolithic period, sugars and fats were beneficial when we needed to run and hunt; calories were naturally burnt off throughout the day. However, switch the Savannah for the office and the scenario changes.

Our brains are hardwired to crave foods that will provide us with high energy but, it is energy we no longer need for the types of activities we do. Furthermore, our bodies are evolved to move, and bearing body weight is essential for the retention of bone density. In fact, after 36 weeks of bedrest, we lose between 24-40% bone density in the heel (Bortz, 1984).

Run versus sprint: suggestions from archaeology that might save us

Prominent Paleoanthropologist Daniel Lieberman argues that humans were evolved to run extremely long distances. His studies on the biomechanics of the human foot indicate that we are morphologically adapted to long distance running. In contrast, Mark Sisson of Mark’s Daily Apple argues for high-intensity interval training through his Primal Blueprint Workout Planwhich supposedly can ‘hack’ our evolutionary biology to attain the best physical fitness possible. His suggestions stipulate ‘running really fast once in a while’ on the basis that our ancestors existed in a world of infinite danger that required us to sprint after and away from predators. He argues that this constant environmental pressure resulted in a gene expression within fast twitch muscle that meant we were evolved to sprint faster. In the most basic of terms: survival of the fittest.

However, these arguments rely heavily on theoretical knowledge. We cannot go back in time and watch our hominid ancestors carry out their day to day activities, but we do know that the paleo-environment was unforgiving and it would have required enormous effort just to survive and reproduce successfully. We can look to modern day hunter-gatherer groups and their activity patterns as a means of ethnographic analogy.


Bortz, W.M., 1984. The disuse syndrome. Western Journal of Medicine.