I once attended a nutrition seminar where the speaker was joking about how one of his colleagues, who was from Italy, was asking him what the healthiest oil for cooking was. He jokingly berated her saying “How could a full-blooded Italian question the merits of olive oil? Clearly, it's been used for thousands of years by Italians and it seems to be working out pretty well for them.”
Looking at the traditional wisdom and applying those lessons to our modern world is something that is very popular now in alternative healthcare. One big idea in eating that really introduced me to this concept was the Paleo Diet. This diet was created by an anthropologist who studied the diets of Paleolithic ancestors of humans. He found that grains didn't exist in any part of these people’s diets and therefore he deduced that they probably shouldn’t be a part of our diets either.
Practices that evolved alongside humans and that were seemingly discovered by a mix of trial and error, evolution, and intuition over thousands of years generally work out to be a safe bet when it comes to health. Michael Pollan has written about how in America we have only several hundred years of history and a melting pot of so many different cultures. Comparing that with a continuous culture for thousands of years in Europe and Asia, he argues that maybe this is why our diets are so terrible. We jump on every new fad and change our diets every time the news has a report that a certain food is good for something or a certain diet is trending.
In nutrition it is now easy to see and follow what past generations and even cavemen were eating and preparing. In exercise it’s not that hard to see either. We have drastic changes in how modern man now uses his body physically. We sit more than we ever have before and our amount of physical activity is tiny compared to past generations. I like gyms and organized exercise but there’s always a tiny part of me that thinks that lifting a heavy object over and over or running around the block for no reason other than to wear myself out is a little silly.
Cavemen were doing those exercises not by choice but so they could survive each day. Most forward thinking trainers are now moving towards exercises that mimic how our body would move in nature. Basically a "Paleo Workout." Paul Chek, a trainer I love, calls these exercises Primal Pattern Movements. He breaks down exercise into focusing on doing particular movements (squats, lunges, bends, pushes, pulls, twists etc) rather than focusing on specific muscle groups (back, bi’s, chest, tris, legs and abs). As an added note, I am a firm believer that exercise in nature such as surfing, paddling, swimming, hiking, sprinting etc, have a much greater benefit to your health as compared to exercising indoors. Our bodies evolved outside, it’s not too far of a stretch to assume that moving outside is better for us.
The biggest contributor to poor health in my opinion however is not diet or exercise. For the vast majority of people, mental stress is number one. Comparing what we do today versus what our caveman ancestors had to go through, one would think that our lives now should be relatively stress free. The chances of us dying from day to day are very low. We live in ultra comfortable, climate controlled, sterile surroundings. Food is relatively cheap and easily accessible. We never have to worry about going without a meal. Medical care for traumatic injuries is outstanding. The days of worrying about being eaten by a hungry carnivore, killed by a neighboring tribe, or suffering an injury that will ultimately lead to death are all gone. On the surface it seems that the days of survival of the fittest are over and our stress levels should be relatively low. Why is it then that we are all still stressed out?
The reason is that the days of survival of the fittest never ended. The stress of predators and impending doom that our ancestors had never went away it just evolved. Instead of fearing lions and bears we now have to be vigilant of banks offering easy credit, salesman promising riches and politicians lying to us to gain influence and power. I am a huge fan of having a positive mindset while also having a firm grip on reality. Actually accepting that there are still predators out there can be very motivating to keeping a healthy body and mind.
Our ancestors had to stay mentally sharp, physically strong and rely on their local community to succeed in their world. In our world it’s the same. If you are too physically and mentally tired and you don’t have a community behind you in times of weakness you may get swindled or be influenced by a corporation or person that is only looking to profit at your expense.
I think about this a great deal when reading to learn, exercising to become stronger and more energized, or meditating and breathing to focus better. You feel like you aren’t such an easy prey for all the predators out there. You feel resistant and defiant to the aspects of society that are looking to take advantage of you. The TV ads, evening news and politicians can't scare you or influence you. You can see through the b.s. and choose not to look at the world the way they want you to see it. You can influence yourself and see the world as you choose to.
Also on a more positive note it's good to be reminded that our bodies are relatively the same as that which our caveman ancestors had. People have a great fear of their bodies now. For instance, we are afraid that a wrong step getting out of the car or one fall on the pavement can injure us for good. It’s good to be reminded that our bodies are pretty much the same bodies that once slept in caves and killed woolly mammoths with spears. We are much tougher and resilient than we give ourselves credit for and given the right care we heal back as well as ever. It's empowering to feel tough and strong despite all the challenges out there and when you feel that way mental stress radically decreases.
D.D. Palmer, the founder of chiropractic wrote that health sits on a theoretical three-legged stool. The three legs that hold up that stool are your mental, physical, and nutritional needs. We have to address all three. They all support your health and if one falters the other two won’t be able to keep that stool standing. They interrelate in the positive direction as well. Improvements in one will help strengthen the other two. In this way, when we are suffering from a great deal of mental stress one of the best things that can be done is to focus on your physical and nutritional needs and the body will naturally become more resilient to mental stress. It's the old adage of "focus on the things that you can change and don't worry about the things that you can't". If you can't change what's stressing you out strengthen the areas of your life that you can. When the body get's stronger your mind gets little more bulletproof with it.
It’s still a dog eat dog world out there and the challenges of everyday life have drastically changed over human history. Despite this, when we honor what our body and mind needs to stay healthy and strong we are all very well equipped to handle what the world throws at us.