in: Fitness, Health & Fitness

• Last updated: September 27, 2023

A Health Plan So Easy, Even a Caveman Can Do It

Caveman cartoon illustration carrying meat on stick.

Editor’s Note: This guest post was by Mike O’Donnell a professional fitness coach and trainer. His blog can be seen at The IF Life

Fred Flintstone is not my idea of a real caveman as he had a car (albeit powered by a foot engine), worked sitting on a dinosaur, and got his food from a drive-thru (we have all seen where the brontosaurus ribs tipped over his car). But if you look at the overall health and fitness of the Paleolithic (or “hunter and gather” period from 10,000 years ago) cavemen, they were all pretty strong, not overweight by today’s standards, and did not suffer from modern degenerative diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, and cancers.

Most people will argue “Well they had an average shorter life span compared to today,” which actually is true but not for the reasons some think. The key word to look at is “average.”  Living back 10,000 years ago was not a walk in the park. Back then there were higher infant mortality rates, deaths from pregnancy/childbirth stress or complications, and many deaths simply from the overall stress of the climate. And of course, none of these survival hazards were accompanied by the modern medical emergency care that we have today. So many ways, comparing modern man’s life span to caveman life span is comparing apples to oranges

But even if you look at more recent cultures that still followed the hunter-gatherer lifestyle up until the last few centuries, you will see men living longer on average than today’s man and, more importantly, living without high rates of modern degenerative diseases.  Hunter-gatherers simply lived longer, healthier, and more functional lives. So we can definitely learn a thing or two from our old cavemen ancestors. Let’s explore what they did.

Cavemen lifted heavy things

Whether it was getting a log for firewood, using rocks as weapons, building a suitable shelter or just bringing back the animal that they hunted down, life was full of things that were heavy, unstable, and needed to be carried over long distances. Rarely were they picking up neon colored 5lb weights. Their bodies were capable of lifting large objects (or a larger load of smaller objects) and transporting them far.

Caveman sprinted and walked for survival

Survival meant making sure they had something to eat and not being the dinner for something else. While they gathered food they would walk over and around hills searching for plants, nuts, and seeds. When it came time to hunt, they would sneak up on the animal herd and then sprint into action with a spear or rock as their only weapon. If a region was barren of food, then it was time to move the whole tribe somewhere else. A caveman’s life was filled with these brief bursts of intense activity, coupled with a slower, low paced walking/hiking lifestyle. There was no jogging for hours at a time.

Cavemen didn’t do isolated exercises, just full body movements

I’m pretty sure the gym craze and nautilus equipment came long after the caveman period. I don’t think caveman took time out to do some crunches during a hunt or calf-raises on a log. What they did do is move their body the way it was meant to move. That meant pushing objects, pulling things, throwing rocks and spears, climbing or walking up hills, squatting down to pick up something, lunging over and across objects, or lifting items over their head to carry home on their shoulders. Their body was perfectly balanced by natural movements, not by isolating muscles.

There were no running shoes, knee braces, or lifting straps 10,000 years ago

Ever see a lion stretch his hamstrings or tie up his specially made shoes before hunting down dinner? Well that was the same case with our cave guy. They ran barefoot on all surfaces, up and down hills, climbing over rocks and so forth. When they picked something up they didn’t have lifting straps, just their bare hands. As their grip strength increased, so didn’t their whole body strength. Because of these full body movements and the lack of “assistance” equipment, I am sure movement based injuries from daily activity were not something that occurred (unless it was because of a fall or other battle related injury). Now look around today and you will see endless physical therapy clinics, ortho-shoe inserts, and children wearing knees braces. What happened to our natural movements and balance that came from them? Since most modern sports/movement related injuries can be traced to muscle imbalances, maybe it is time to get back to correcting our imbalances first. Cave guy probably didn’t pull his hamstring chasing dinner, yet most modern people are pulling muscles with less strenuous activities.

Cavemen ate natural foods and meats and got plenty of sunshine

Diet is such a huge part of any health, fat loss, or muscle gain. What did our old buddies eat? Well they could have gathered up local vegetables and fruits in season (that would be the summer months). Also they would have eaten nuts and seeds as they found them. When it came to meat, they would eat the whole animal, especially the organs like liver and brain (great sources of vitamins, minerals, and fats). It’s been shown that cavemen actually had larger brains than modern man. Why? Most likely because of their penchant for cracking open animal skulls and supping on their brains, as the brain is mostly fat and a huge source of the essential Omega 3 fatty acid DHA (which is shown to increase brain function). Who knows, if they had never eaten the brains of their kills and developed their own brains in the process, we might still be living in caves painting on walls.

Cavemen didn’t eat every 3 hours and breakfast was not the most important meal of the day

Long ago there were no convenience stores to get a soda or candy bar, no supermarkets to find dinner, and no canned food to keep around for days. I bet if you looked at cave guy he didn’t wake up to have the “most important” meal of the day as his largest meal. Unless there was some meat left over from last night’s hunt, it was time to get back out there and look again. He could eat smaller portions of whatever fruits and nuts he found, but mostly he hunted for the big game. He had plenty of energy, and in fact needed maximum strength and alertness if he was going to outsmart his prey. The largest meal of the day was dinner (not breakfast), when he returned home and shared his kill with the family or tribe. That was a time for celebration and a feast to be enjoyed for hours.

The only big stress was famine and not being eaten by something else

Lifestyle has a big impact on health and the #1 issue of modern life is the chronic stress that many men face daily. Back in the old days there was only the pressure to find food and just plain survive. They had plenty of time for relaxation and didn’t have reports due on Mr. Smith’s desk by noon (another reason Fred Flintstone wasn’t a real caveman). Also there was no artificial light or TV to keep them up late at night, so they got a good night’s sleep. Sure there was stress here and there, but it functioned in the way our body was meant to use it. There’s a reason it’s called the “Fight or Flight” response and not the “All Day Ongoing Stress” system. Used once in a while, the “fight or flight” response is fine; used all the time, stress will keep our bodies in a constant state of breakdown and make us sick. Cavemen had plenty of time to relax, socialize and even play. How does that compare to most of our modern lifestyles?

How to Live like a Caveman in the 21st Century

Ok, let’s be honest, I’ll be the first to say that I am not about to go live in a cave and give up my laptop, cell phone, and internet. But we can learn what is important in seeing how our bodies were MEANT to move/eat/live for optimal health and fitness. Remember that cavemen didn’t have all the issues of chronic degenerative diseases that we have in epidemic rates today. So we need to take the lessons from the past and apply them to our lives today if we want a chance at healthy aging.

Lift heavy stuff

Not only will you be able to build lean muscle, but you will also get your hormones going for optimal fat loss and muscle building. Keep the weight heavy and the reps low (between 5-10).

Do full body compound exercises with your body or free weights

Forget isolation work for your major lifting movements. Don’t make machines the staple of your workout. Focus first on full body movements like pushups, pull-ups, squats, deadlifts, lunges, and more. Use your body or free weights to stimulate all your major and minor muscles (stabilizers). Make those the base of all your workouts and you will see tremendous results for the whole body. Not only that, you will also lessen you chance of injury down the road as most are usually due to muscular imbalances caused by too many machines and too much isolation work.

Go run/do intervals

We have all seen the evidence that short bursts of high intensity effort can lead to more fat loss. High intensity cardio releases the hormones needed to free up more fatty acids from our fat stores to be burned up. The best workout program will involve some sort of sprinting/interval for a bit, followed by a slower paced activity.

Walk/hike/dance for “lifestyle cardio”

Be like our ancestors and go for a long walk in nature. Pack up the backpack if you want to make it more challenging, like you were moving camp or carrying home dinner. Go find a winding, hilly trail and enjoy just being outside. Leave the iPod at home and let your mind wander and let go of the many things that may be stressing your subconscious. Or just get out with friends and go dancing, a very common and ancient form of human interaction and celebration. But whatever you do, just enjoy it!

Workout naked

Okay, not totally naked, but forget the straps, gloves, braces, and special shoes and inserts. No matter what you’re doing, be as naked as you can be. If you can’t naturally hold a weight, you shouldn’t lift it. If you need special shoes and knee braces, you’re not correcting all the imbalances or improper form in your running. Get Nike Frees or try running barefoot on a grass surface. You’ll quickly find your natural stride. Be a man with a strong grip, a rare phenomena nowadays.

Listen to our podcast with John Durant about the paleo lifestyle:

Eat whole natural foods

If it wasn’t around for cavemen, then you shouldn’t be eating it. Stay away from anything that comes in a bag or a box. Fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and meats (with healthy fats) should be the staples of your diet. Take some fish oil (as most of our food is devoid of healthy omega 3s) and you will see improvements in your brain focus and overall health (anti-inflammatory, spares muscle, helps burn fat). If you would like more information, I highly suggest reading The Paleo Diet by Dr Loren Cordain.

Have days of feast and famine

Honestly, the whole diet book industry has done more harm than good with their “you must eat a large breakfast and six times a day” sales pitch. Do we really need a large breakfast? No. Does a large breakfast probably just put you to sleep? Yes. Are we going to starve if we skip a meal? No. Is there any real science to the metabolic advantage of eating six times a day vs three times? No, because in the end people lose weight not with the amount of meals they have but based on their insulin control and calorie deficit. The idea that your metabolism will crash if you don’t eat six times a day is the biggest and most harmful myth out there, mostly pushed by guess who? Supplement companies who make their living selling bars and shakes that you’re “suppossed” to eat six times a day. This is not how we were designed to survive.

Time to get back to the environment in which our bodies were supposed to operate, and become stronger because of it. Integrate your own periods of feast and famine. What does that mean? Maybe you need to take some days off with lighter eating through out the day (less calories). Or you could also fast some days skipping breakfast or longer, but always eating at some point later in the day (this is called IF, or intermittent fasting). It’s also important to add in the feast part and have larger meals (like at dinner) when you have the famine part, as it’s not about starvation. Whatever you choose, your body best responds to a continually changing environment. Optimally you want your largest meals in the hours after your main resistance training workouts for the week, when your body is primed to maximally take in nutrients. Remember if you want to lose weight it still boils down to insulin control and calorie deficit, not how many meals you eat. Personally I have done intermittent fasting for the last couple years and have experienced increased mental clarity, more daily energy, easier stubborn fat loss, more muscle retention on less eating and most importantly I’ve brought the  joy of eating back into my life.

Relax, get outside, get your sleep, go have a beer with buddies, dance, and just enjoy life

If there is too much stress in your life, then your health and well-being will suffer. Stress was only meant for small, infrequent bursts of the “fight or flight” response. Cavemen didn’t have all the imposed work deadlines, traffic, overbooked schedules, and money worries that most people have daily. It’s time to remember what really matters in life and enjoy the company of the people/family around you. Getting plenty of sleep will also help your natural hormonal cycle of repair that occurs during the night. Have a beer, get out and dance, or just go relax with friends. Find what really matters to you in life and learn to enjoy it….I’m sure even Fred Flintstone might agree on that one.

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