Modern times have seen a resurgence in paleolithic diets – for better or worse – as people turn to hunter gatherers for lessons on lifestyle and health.
But we haven’t embraced paleo levels of exercise – and researchers suggest we should pay considerably more attention to our ancestors’ physical activity habits.
Historical records estimate that hunter gatherers, whose survival and transport relied on doing everything manually, accrued more than double, and even triple, the number of daily steps of modern US adults.
In fact, most urban people are less active now than ever before in history.
Whether stone age people were healthier remains debatable because they tended to die young. But they were more likely to be killed by wild beasts and falling rocks than the chronic metabolic diseases that plague modern humans.
Physical inactivity and chronic disease
Non-communicable diseases are the modern world’s biggest health problem, responsible for substantial limitations in daily activities and 70 percent of all deaths in the US.
Advances in technology have resulted in less physically active lifestyles along with increased sedentary behaviour – and these are not necessarily mirror images of each other.
In other words, many of the ways in which inactivity leads to chronic disease are not the same means by which being active can prevent those diseases – these have different mechanisms of action in the body.
So avoiding sedentary behaviours and engaging in physical activity each have their own distinct benefits.
Broadly, nutrition and exercise physiology expert Frank Booth and colleagues define physical inactivity as “physical activity levels less than those required for optimal health and prevention of premature death”.
Booth and co-authors argue that low activity levels are a primary culprit for most chronic diseases. In fact, they present evidence that being active could prevent at least 35 different conditions ranging from obesity and diabetes to heart disease and depression.
“Walking is man’s best medicine” – Hippocrates ~450 BC
Hippocrates is famously quoted as saying that food is medicine. He also recognised the importance of physical activity.
On the whole, our ancestors’ physical activity levels approximate guidelines set by the World Health Organisation.
For older adults aged 65 and above, WHO recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity throughout the week in bouts of at least 10 minutes – and up to 300 minutes for additional health benefits.
The paleo lifestyle
There is a lot of confusion about the paleo diet, and experts point out it is not just one diet: they say there are many different variants.
By and large, paleo diet enthusiasts embrace it as an excuse to eat lots of meat. But Dr Kim Lloyd, CEO of the Paleo Society, told NutritionInsight it’s not a meat-based diet.
“True paleo means eating approximately 75 percent plant-based food, non-starchy vegetables, fruit, seeds and tree nuts with the addition of compassionately reared, free range meat, fish and eggs,” she explained.
Many nutrition experts say the diet’s health benefits are attributed to eating fresh foods and avoiding processed meats and other packaged foods. But they caution against omitting whole food groups like dairy, grains and legumes as suggested by many proponents of the diet.
Combined with regular physical activity, this broad dietary approach – a cornerstone of most traditional diets – is surely a wholesome recipe for longevity and good health.