Paleo Exercise


Along with the highly popular “Paleo Diet,” we would suppose that Paleo Exercise might become the latest rage. However, the physical activities that hunter-gatherers had to do (and still do) to make a living are not entirely desirable. Here is why some “paleo” activities are healthful and others are not.

It may well be that some hunter-gatherer tribes had regular exercise programs. None of the still-existing ones seem to. (There are still over 200 tribes scattered here and there, though most are assimilating into “civilization.”)

A common denominator of most hunter-gatherer lifestyles is economy. Food may be plentiful at times and scarce at others. It would be a valuable survival skill to be able to conserve energy. (Is that why so many of us shun exercise?) We would suppose that a hunter-gatherer would expend the least amount of energy necessary to get the job at hand done. But what was the job at hand? We would have:

  • Getting food
  • Conflict with the neighboring tribes
  • Conflict with large animals
  • Shelter management
  • Play – most tribes—today at least— have abundant leisure time

The mix of any or all of these would vary enormously. Some tribes would have a permanently assured food supply— a well-stocked lake, for instance. Others might be continually migrating. Others might migrate seasonally. There would be a lot of variety.

Exercise, though, might be reasonably broken into these three familiar categories:

  1. Anaerobic Exercise
  2. Resistance Exercise
  3. Aerobic Exercise

Anaerobic Exercise


This is often called High Intensity Interval Training today. It really means any exercise where the energy being expended cannot be sustained (aerobic means metabolism involving oxygen). One cannot sprint at top speed for much over 20-30 seconds. A fit hunter-gatherer might extend this to several minutes.

This could come up frequently in primordial scenes. A hunter chasing an animal would likely be going at top speed for the final moments. If the animal were big enough, the hunter might be going at top speed in the opposite direction.

And in the hunter-gatherers’ case, the stakes are a lot higher, so the expended effort is likely to represent a true maximum.

Warfare among hunter-gatherers was endemic. Some skeletal remains indicate a mortality rate of up to 30%. Battle with the weaponry available to hunter-gatherers would likely be fierce and sudden, and involve anaerobic activity.

Resistance Exercise


Great View

Heavy lifting would be common in paleo times. What would one lift? Oneself, to start with. Many of our ancestors lived in trees and would have to climb them several times a day, often laden with the daily spoils or attached children.

Heavy rocks might be moved about to provide a more secure dwelling, or might be hoisted to some promising promontory in wait of a migrating herd or competing tribe.


A gatherer in the forest that happened upon a windfall would surely attempt to bring as much of it back as possible.

Likewise, heavy animals would need to be drug back to headquarters.

These are big bone movements, with lots of “reps.”

Aerobic Exercise

Aerobic exercise is exercise that can be sustained, meaning that stored energy sources, fat normally, can be metabolized efficiently—the continual oxygen demand can be met. These are the sorts of exercises that can (possibly with some training) be done for an hour or much longer.

Why would hunter-gatherers engage in jogging, or brisk walking? Here it gets interesting. Normally such activities would be associated with food shortage. Migration would be the most likely aerobic activity. Migration is not done for sightseeing. It is done to research new food supplies. This is clearly a time of economy. This economy is seen today. Aerobic exercisers do not experience the increase in important growth hormones that is seen in anaerobic exercisers.

Effect on the heart

Anaerobic exercise has enormous vascular benefit. Running the heart up to its maximum rate and back down keeps it flexible and healthy. The extremes of blood flow literally scrub the arteries. Virtually all hunter-gatherers are extremely heart healthy, (even those—Inuit, for instance—that live largely on saturated fat).

Aerobic exercise is also beneficial for the heart, but far less so. The extremes are not met and the heart basically trains itself to run at a fixed rate. Better that sitting in the cave staring at the fire, but not nearly as effective as anaerobic exercise.

Effect on the bones

Resistance exercise=strong bones. Osteoporosis is unknown among hunter-gatherers. The stress on the bones keeps them dense and strong. Almost any person that regularly does exercises that are challenging and stresses the large bones will avoid, and even reverse, osteoporosis. Squats and deadlifts are idea in this category.

Such activities also speed up the healing of broken bones. This was common in hunter-gatherer societies.

Effect on the joints

The hunter-gatherer lifestyle was arduous in many cases. Most skeletal remains show signs of repeated injuries, especially broken bones and damaged joints. The only comparable group found today would be rodeo cowboys. Injuries in that field are simply part of the job description. In the hunter-gatherer world, we would expect falls to be the predominate cause.

What can we use here?

Obviously most of us do not want to tangle with large animals or make war on neighboring tribes. Also, it will be useful to avoid injury prone activities. That we can easily get appropriate exercise while avoiding all these difficulties is one of the merits of modern civilization.

One of the demerits of modern civilization is that we can get by with no exercise at all. Though some will naturally seek exercise, for most of us it is done grudgingly, for the health benefits. In this latter case, getting the most health benefit for the least amount of time invested will naturally lead to the anaerobic exercise and resistance training, aerobic exercise having lesser benefit. And all three forms of exercise can be done safely at the local gym, or even in the home. Though they will lack the thrill of the chase and other hunter-gatherer amusements, the health benefits will accrue just the same.

  2 comments for “Paleo Exercise

  1. Murph
    September 12, 2016 at 11:20 am

    This is more about the diet than exercise (claim: meat increases insulin as much as carbs do?!) but would appreciate your thoughts on it:

    • September 14, 2016 at 3:31 pm

      Well, Murph, ‘studies’ are one thing, basic physiology is sometimes another and plain-old clinical experience is yet another. My point: protein requires insulin to get the amino acids into the cells – straightforward physiology – and the liver has a clever way to insure this happens – recounted in that knee-slapping, sidesplitting read “Quantitative Medicine” – and studies are often blind to the individual variance as they statistically smooth genetic variance and in my patients I have seen strict carb restriction raise insulin from baseline and lower insulin from baseline. What is going on? Well, some people’s candy factory – that would be the liver – is very good at creating and pumping out glycogen and others are not as good at this function. Many people basically never become ketotic and always have plenty of, but not too much, insulin and circulating glucose. Genetics again. However the interaction of genetics is very complex, only partially understood so the only sure, sound way forward is “Measure and modify the Quantitative Medicine way.” How do various diets affect your numbers is the only question. I hope this helps you unpack the competing economic and ideological interests in this issue. Dr. Mike

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *