Book review: Play as if Your Life Depends on It

by Frank Forencich, published by GoAnimal, Seattle 2003

Refocusing on health as wellbeing:  Health is rarely absent from the media, politics or economics.  Yet when we look more closely at the substance, we see that the controversies generally focus on treating illness and injury and paying for those treatments.  Good health receives surprisingly little serious attention in the media who treat it as a lifestyle option.  Good health, most likely exceptionally good health and extraordinary fitness, must have characterised the ancestors of everyone reading these words. Today we have departments in every university training health workers and researching disease treatments, we devote a substantial proportion of our national and personal budgets to 'health', yet with all our science and all these dollars, health is declining in substantial proportions of our population.  In the US it is now expected that the current generation of young people will not live as long as their parents.

A thoroughgoing evolutionary approach:  This book takes a refreshing, even subversive, look at human health and wellbeing in an explicitly evolutionary context.  It is an application of Occam's Razor to our physical and mental health and wellbeing today.  The author, Frank Forencich makes the point, familiar to readers of this journal, that "human physiology and biomechanics have been sculpted over the course of millions of years to enhance our survival in a semi-wooded grassland environment".  In the next three hundred pages he explains how we can all mimic those challenges to improve our health, fitness and overall wellbeing. Although this book follows in the tradition of The Paleolithic Prescription1, Neanderthin2 and The TBK Fitness Program3, it actually breaks significant new ground, shifting the focus from reductionist physiology to how we can each apply the principles of evolutionary health to our everyday lives – not just our bodies – through to old age and really enjoy ourselves in the process.

Be prepared to be different:  The author acknowledges the unconventional nature of his recommendations: "When our world becomes automated and sedentary living becomes the norm, deviance becomes a prerequisite for health. If you want to be vigorous and fit, you're going to have to behave differently from the people around you".  He points us out of the gym, out of the special sports ‘gear’, away from dependence on specialist advice and the expenditure of money.  He calls on us to distinguish fitness from sport and shows us how to enter the minds, lifeways and environment of our evolutionary past.  "We are animals and it's about time we got good at it".  He says "we shouldn't worry about what other people think; if they won't exercise in public, they're the ones who are dysfunctional, not us."  He even has a new twist to the customary warning on health and fitness books: "Before beginning a program of physical inactivity, consult your physician."

The wisdom of children:  Reading this book I was reminded of the time a personal trainer introduced a bewildered new client to the vast range of specialised equipment at my gym.  "Where do I begin?" she pleaded. Meanwhile, her four-year-old daughter was scampering from one piece of equipment to the next, trying them all out in her own way, clambering over them, swinging from them and ignoring those that offered no immediate challenge.  She knew exactly what to do: accept the new challenges and have fun, without permission or guidance. 

The un-wisdom of the 'fitness industry':  Forencich contrasts his approach to conventional fitness publications.  Whereas they often seriously describe some variation of the 'three pillars of fitness' such as aerobic capacity, strength and flexibility, Forencich considers the environment and culture in which we live, and recommends our three pillars of fitness be "mischief, deviance and rebellion".

Our evolutionary inclination to idleness:  Forencich has discovered – independently – the Evolutionary Health Principle. We are essentially hard-wired from millions of years of survival struggles on the savannah to prefer physical rest and even idleness and this preference has driven the development of labour-saving devices, our transport infrastructure and much else so that the ancestral imperative for movement has all but disappeared as we set up our modern world to give us conveniently what we want.  It becomes obvious that to move in ways that are best for our health, we're going to have to do things that feel wrong. We're going to have to go against our hard wiring. It's no wonder we ignore those who advise us to be more active.

Health is mental and social as well as physical:  As well as physical fitness, Forencich deals with mental health and the individual's social health, not as separate topics but as interdependent.  He sees as suggestive the correlation between the rise of depression and the decline in physical activity over the last hundred years: "Take any animal, restrict its normal movement to a small fraction of its biological norm and you're bound to see changes in its brain chemistry, disposition, outlook and other health consequences". 

From the general to the downright specific:  In this review I have concentrated so far on the arguments and the overall message of the book.  The author does, however, also provide over a hundred examples of movements and routines, but we can sense that he feels his guidance should become redundant once we have the right mindset and can take up the abundant opportunities for physical challenges to meet our needs and ambitions.  He also provides many examples of how to acquire the right mindset.  Forencich reminds us continually of the animal model: animals do not 'work out'; they play, hunt and flee, but exercise – never.

Come young! Come old!  Although this book sets out a range of movements that have likely relevance to human evolution and points to activity that mimics physical challenges that our bodies adapted to over millions of years, the writer advocates exercise that suits the needs of each individual, not the needs of a testosterone-charged hunter in the prime of life. He does this by focusing on functional exercise.  He tells us that if your aim is to be fit enough to play with your grandchildren, go swimming in the sea every summer or enjoy without injury all the work you want to do in the garden, then that also points to the sort of training you need to explore. He even lays out the basics for an entire 'garden fitness' exercise program .  He refers to this as 'functional fitness' and explains that just as this sort of activity does not involve the use of machines in a gym, so neither need preparing the body to undertake these activities.  "Train for the way you want to live" is his advice.

Walk, walk, walk:  Forencich devotes a chapter to walking, describing deliciously our ancestors' uses of walking on the African savannah and in the forest edge and how walking was the key to survival as the seasons changed. "If you wanted to eat, you'd have to put in some miles".  He describes a 'stealth walk', a 'hunted gatherer walk', about walking with alertness and sharp observation and about creative running. He also points out that the natural state of the human foot is shoeless and that the natural environment is uneven rather than paved and explores the implications for our walking, running and overall fitness.

Cutting to the chase:  From walking, it is natural to move on to balance and Forencich explains more clearly than I have seen elsewhere the mysteries of proprioception.  Well, there are no mysteries after reading his explanation and we realise just how important it is and how to foster our proprioceptive skills.  The author also takes us through warming up, stretching, 'sets and reps', 'correct form', injury prevention and diet – all firmly in their evolutionary context, often relishing his Occam's Razor conclusions that cut across the conventional wisdom of the fitness professional and the health industry.  His holistic approach comes out where he describes his game 'carnivore', a mixture of what I knew in my childhood as 'chasey' and 'hidey', modified to enhance its Paleolithic reality – a game that he suggests can be combined with learning about grassland ecology, biology, animal behaviour and human origins.

The fossil evidence:  For those interested in the fitness levels of our ancestors, Forencich leads us into an examination of the fossil record, describing, for example, skeletons of Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens with right side humerus (upper arm) bones that are significantly larger than the left side, suggesting powerful frequent movement of the right arm – similar to what we see in modern tennis players.  There is also evidence from the points at which the tendons attach to the bones that indicate greater strength than almost any modern humans.

Play is at the core to fitness and all-round health:  What is the thread running through the book?  Frank Forencich returns time and again to the need for adults to regain the joy and elation they had for physical movement in their childhood, a delight that adult hunter-gatherers retained in their exhausting corroborees, other dances, wrestling contests, jousting with children.  He epitomises this as play.  Play is movement that is voluntary, enjoyable, often companionable, unpredictable, fun and a little bit risky. Because play is subjective, it can't be measured or analyzed; there are no stats or spreadsheets, no rankings, winners or losers. Play does not fit in with our cultural preference for dominance hierarchies.  Fun is in the body and spirit of the player, not in the eyes of judges, commentators or spectators.  All Forencich’s movement recommendations are directed to help us progress beyond the contemporary idea of exercise as an onerous duty that is good for health or as a penance that must be endured to lose excess body fat – which will, of course, achieve both of these and itself give us the motivation to show up and get moving.  In doing this, he acknowledges the need for imagination and willingness to be trailblazers and to develop play forms that meet our adult functional needs, and for this Forencich gives abundant help.

A positive approach:  So here's a book that is not about fleeing from body fat, old age, diabetes or heart disease but is instead about running towards agility, strength, endurance, vitality, competence and new possibilities for play.

Where a great book might have gone further:  As a reviewer who has been participating in the development of 'Evolutionary Fitness' for the past five years, I found it hard to fault this book.  Although the author deals with the science, he does not get lost in reductionism; he always keeps in mind the principle that what worked for three million years will still work today.  The omissions I noted are (i) his relative neglect of a Paleolithic diet as described recently by Stephen Boyden4, but Loren Cordain5 and other writers have already covered that field adequately; (ii) the destruction of the Pleistocene environment and expansion of human numbers such that re-creation of the Paleolithic lifestyle requires more than a new approach to movement; (iii) the limited (though still useful) analysis of human social developments associated with civilization and the supporting memes.  Forencich's writing is never boring and, particularly in his final chapters where he draws the threads together and lays out the path for us, is lyrical and inspiring.

Where to get the book:  The book is readily purchased through Amazon or the author's website: www.goanimal.com. He also offers a weekly e-mail bulletin which is regularly as informative as the first parts of the book and as inspiring as its final chapters. In January 2005, my copy of the book arrived in Australia from his site eight days after I place the order.

Reviewer's note:  This review is my own work; I have no connection with the author other than as an admiring and grateful reader.

To the best of my knowledge the book has not been extensively reviewed previously, although there are eight very positive review notes on Amazon.com, There is also an article based on an interview with the author in the Seattle Times; this article features a photograph of the author in the Kalahari.

This review will be revised for publication in the Journal 'Nature and Society' mid-2005, taking into account comments sent here.

References

1.  Eaton, S B, Shostak, M and Konner, M, The Paleolithic Prescription, 1988

2.  Audette, R, Neanderthin, 1999   Visit Ray Audette's site

3.  Katz, T B, The TBK Fitness Program, 2003   Visit Tamir Katz's site

4.  Boyden, S V, The Biology of Civilisation, 2004

5.  Cordain, L, The Paleo Diet, 2002   Visit Loren Cordain's site

 

Footnote:

Stephen Boyden has defined the Evolutionary Health Principle as: The principle that, if an animal is removed from its natural environment, or if the environment changes in some way, then it is likely that the animal will be less well-adapted to the new conditions, and will consequently show some signs of physiological or behavioural maladjustment.

 

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