Welcome to the first in a series of articles in which I plan to map out routes from the couch to healthy movement, and beyond.
Mountains and landscapes make great metaphors and in this article I want to show the easiest paths out of the swamps of junk food, obesity and inactivity to at the least a pleasant lake on a south facing slope with a great view. We may even head further uphill, above the treeline to where icy winds and long drops are a hazard, but the sense of aliveness is wonderful.
Along the way I will point out certain will-o-the wisps will try to lead you astray, where slavers would put you to work for their own ends.
If you are reading this, chances are that you know me already. If not there’s a brief bio on this site. The majority of people who I work with are already pretty active – you may learn some new ideas, concepts and get some benefits from these articles. I trust you can be patient when I start writing for the people who have almost, almost given up.
As I start this series I plan to write about
- How the fitness/beauty/diet industry is out to con you
- The value of simplicity
- How to start easy
- Simple eating guidelines
- Simple movement guidelines
- What you can expect to achieve over time and degree of work/movement
- Some models from nature that you can apply
- The mental/emotional factors that sometimes get in the way – and what to do about it
Much of what I write about is biological in nature. Biology does not care for political correctness any more than a lion cares for how pretty the big dark eyes of an antelope are while sinking its teeth into the big doe eyed antelopes neck (or buffalo’s throat).
Basically if you want to be told how awesome you are, this is not the series for you. If you want to be told how downtrodden you are and that none of it’s your fault go and read that somewhere else. Also if you want to be told you have the potential to achieve anything… Nope. You have the potential to achieve some things.
It would be a disservice to you to sugar coat what I have to say. It is not personal, it’s information.
I also do not plan to repeat much of what you almost certainly already know, links between obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, the burden on health services. The media is already full of that. Equally I won’t tell you how wonderful life will be when you look like a Greek statue or a magazine cover model. Health is a no brainer, under certain circumstances it might be worth sacrificing for a bigger goal, but not something to throw away or let other people steal.
Life in the swamp
So let’s start with what I see every day. Some days and places more than others of course.
I see overweight people, people who when I was a kid would have been sideshow attractions are now ‘normal’. I see shops that only sell plastic packaged processed food. I don’t see people carrying their bags, or walking up stairs when they can avoid it. I see bizarre gaits, clumsiness, stiffness, weakness, I see people who have trouble breathing.
I also see glossy magazines and giant ads with photoshopped hips, pecs, tits, skin, six packs and teeth. I see gyms full of expensive machines, hamster wheel running machines, men gazing at their biceps while they do curls (if they are not gazing at women’s arses), women doing crunches, I see sterile shiny places where everything is “safe” to the point of pallid bloodlessness.
I will address all of these and more as I go on. First I’ll take a moment to say what I want. I like elegance. Not elegance in terms of a beautiful ball gown, but in terms of a structure that achieves an end with minimal effort or material. A spider’s web is elegant (whatever you think of spiders) a crackling electric fly zapper is not. Neither is a hamster wheel gym (‘fitness’ and ‘beauty’ industry rant here), or gastric band surgery. I like honesty and compassion. Outside of slapstick other people’s suffering hurts me. Advertisers who tell you that you are not enough because you do not conform to an ideal consumer or body profile are both dishonest and cruel.
Swamp scenics and vegetation by Blake, Tupper Ansel, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Let’s start on the good stuff
To be healthy and active you do not need a degree in sports science. You do not need a phd in nutrition. You definitely do not need the latest fad diet or workout either.
This is the idea behind the primal/paleo movement. There is a fair amount of science backing up much of the paleo and primal ideas. But you do not need a degree in anthropology or evolutionary biology to use them.
This article uses heuristics – rules of thumb, guidelines that you can apply flexibly for your situation.*
Heuristics fit the human mind well, they are easy to remember and easy to apply. It is true that some heuristics can be approximate, and in manners of statistics often wrong. But in certain situations they are near enough. In finding the right direction out of the swamp the right heuristics will point you the right way. As you navigate the actual terrain you will learn more than you could in a schoolroom.
The paleo heuristic
The paleo heuristic basically says that our bodies evolved to work optimally in pre-agricultural conditions, that the conditions have changed – in terms of diet, movement, social organisation, but human needs have not.
Any animal in its wild state stays within parameters of health that our society would consider admirable (not counting parasites and predation).
Guess what, you are an animal too. Get a little closer to your wild state and your health will improve.
The paleo idea and diet is a source of ongoing debate when you get into the details of what people say is ‘paleo’ or not. Most of this is a waste of breath, argument for argument’s sake. To get out of the swamp we just need very basics – to recognise which direction is uphill.
There was no single wild state for humanity, some lived in hotter places, others colder, vegetation, predators, prey, availability of water all varied. What we do know is that in a wild state we had pre-agricultural food, that was not always available, that we had to move to find, and we made everything by hand, including fire.
We do not have to throw out or leave modern culture to benefit from this heuristic. Neither is this a moral judgement of the superiority of wild humans to modern humans, or a specific life style over another. There are simply actions and consequences.
The paleo idea is an observation about human biology that we can benefit from when we begin to integrate aspects of wildness into our daily life. We can benefit from other observations about human biology using non paleo-activities like modern sports as well.
To begin to apply the paleo heuristic we can use another simple guideline that I explain below. Before doing that it may be helpful to flesh out what a pre-agricultural life might include.
So use your imagination and picture a wild landscape. You could choose African savannah, temperate woodland, Mediterranean coasts, the edges of the arctic, the depths of a rainforest, or anywhere else. If your ancestors came from one of these all the better. Now begin to ask yourself what it would be like to live there in a band of 20-100 people. What would you need to do everyday? What activities? What would it feel like, textures, temperatures?
Obviously your imagination will only go so far. You probably don’t know how to recognize edible plants, or where to find them, or how to avoid large hunting cats. But you can get a sense of what your body evolved to cope with. Walking, running, digging, climbing, cold, heat, uneven surfaces, throwing, carrying, wetness.
Now take a moment to contrast the level and kind of activity, along with the availability of food in your imagination with that of your current life. If you can see no differences I doubt you are reading this on a computer.
When you can picture the differences you are ready to introduce the second heuristic and start the actual changes.
The easiest heuristic
Here is the second heuristic. Start with the easiest changes. What is the easiest thing that you can bring into your life or remove from your life that will bring you closer to this wild state?
It might be to walk more, or dance more, or not eat crisps/chips, or to hang with a little weight from the handles on metros or buses, make something with your hands, carry shopping without wheels….You decide.
So pick an easy thing to do or to stop, and do or stop it. If it is too easy, pick another and apply that. Even better make a short list or three to five easy changes. Start with the easiest one today.
As you implement the change check that is not excessive or hurting you. Shifting to a barefoot style shoe and walking a lot may not be a smart idea if you are overweight and your feet have been shaped by years of restrictive shoe use.
Basically if you have acute physical pain, especially in your joints, during or after your change you are probably going to fast! One of the skills you need to develop is knowing the difference between too much and not enough. This is a skill that takes time, and that the best movers still make mistakes about sometimes.
I know it may seem like nothing, but it isn’t. It is something. Of course the shittier your diet, the less you move the more easy changes there will be to make. You may be impatient to see results, they will come, but you cannot hurry biology. Hunter gatherers knew patience!
I know some of you may see a big, scary change to make. Go for it straight away if you want, but don’t neglect the small ones!
Remember, as you keep chipping away at the easiest changes, after a while you will reach the big scary ones anyway, except that by then they may not seem so big.
This is just a start.
Still, whether you are just waking up to the fact that you are in the swamp, or are someone who already has a strong physical practise and well reflected diet there’s always a next, easiest change that you can make.
You can probably sneak your smallest changes under the radar of the people around you. At some point what you do will be more obvious, it will begin to affect not just you, but the people who you share your life with. We are social primates, we create the best results in small groups with shared goals and ideals. You will either need to get others on your side with this, or have the character to hold onto to what you want and say ‘screw you’ to the people around you.
You may wonder why I have not suggested something specific for you to do. There are two reasons. The first is that there are no completely generalized solutions, and I do not know your circumstances.
The second is that I want you to take responsibility for what you do, I want you to engage your intelligence, to be able to fail reflect and change as well as succeed directly. I do not want to spoon feed people ‘solutions’ and present myself as somehow superior. I want to engage with smart, independent people who will delight me with the ingenuity they apply in living their lives.
In future articles I’ll make some more suggestions, offer some more heuristics you can apply, including where to find allies and travelling companions.
And please tell me how you get on.
Idea and exercise summary
You are an animal – you will be healthier if you eat and move in ways that are closer to your ‘wild’ state.
You can imagine your wild state imperfectly and still get insights into differences between present state and wild state. You can use your media watching/reading/listening time to learn more about how hunter gatherers spend their days.
You can use these differences to decide on and make the easiest change in your daily or weekly routine. Make sure that they do not create acute pain, especially joint pain.
Over time these easy changes will change your life and health more thoroughly.
By choosing the changes you make you are taking responsibility for your own health and beginning to develop skills that will keep you out of the hands of doctors. More power to you!
This is just the beginning!
- Movement or fitness – the difference
- Some choice movements and shapes to integrate
- Some more suggestions about eating
- What do you need?
- Degree of effort and speed of results – what is possible?
- How to progress and not break yourself
- Not doing this alone, where to go for information, teaching, support
*the original rule of thumb was that the distance between the belly of a longbow and its string should be about length of the archers hand and outstretched thumb, and the thumb has been used as a measuring device across many cultures, because you guessed it the body provides an intuitive, robust and constantly available tools.