Palaeolithic exercise questions

We received the following question by e-mail in July 2010:

Hello Mr. Thomas,

your site is a great inspiration for me, and on top of  it your interview with Chris Highcock I laughed the weekend through.

"The American way" of our Paleo-Friends you have exactly mentioned, it's the same feeling for me as an european (german) observer. They love the "I look better than you", but I don`t want to throw the first stone. Maybe ;-) a type of gene-expression in the US.

The evfit-way is a serious hobby for me since 2 years, so I am a big fan of your work.

I`m 44 years old, family, 2 kids, dog, cat, computer scientist, active sportsman (but more and more as a trainer for the youth).

(Male, middleclass, all of us, are right). But i live near Dusseldorf, there is the Neandertal, so my interests in Paleo-Lifestyle is geographical well-founded.

My questions:

I`ve noticed that you skip lunch, is it for fasting reasons? Or, what do you think of daily/weekly fastings?

You pointed out, that Paleo is a middleclass male theme, where are the children and womans?

Any new ideas, as an father I see the positive effects for myself, but my family ignores it. School, friends, grandparents, media, there is still a mountain to climb.

Eating much veggies? I’ve seen your salad-bowls.

Prof Pirlet has had another opinion, based on his clinical experience, he recommends a low carb lifestyle, but with cooked veggies and moderate proteins in little portions. In his practice he found out that the digestive system was not able to digest whether big amounts of raw veggies nor too much proteins. They brew and rot in the colon, if not perfectly digested. Because the digestive system makes up to 70% of your immune system, (400 sqm surface, if rolled out) which gets weaker with age, these are good arguments for small portions and not much raw foods.

Maybe your are interested in: Maintaining Life and Health by Natural Selection of Protein Molecules. Prof Dr. Pirlet was an clinical internist at university in Frankfurt, Germany.

You can download the pdf: (just click on "Naturheilkunde" on the left upside, then you`ll find it)

Your training regiment is a real hard one. I`ve struggled my whole life with squats and deadlifts because of a cycle-accident. Can you tell me how you take a heavy bag as a safer way, it seems to be a completely other thing?

Keep up your site.

Best Regards from Germany,

Our reply

Thank you for taking the time to write and for writing to me in English. In the Palaeolithic, a working knowledge of about a dozen languages was a common thing, but we native English speakers have little incentive to replicate this skill. I would think this atrophies, a little, part of our brain and limits the ways we can think of different ways to interact with the material and social worlds.

Not all the information on about my own exercise and diet practices is current, though I am still living under an undiminished palaeo paradigm. For example, I am presently supplementing my workout with squats and I am buying a few veggies over winter as I have neglected my garden while I focused on renovating our house. Your proximity to the Neander must be an inspiration. However, I often think of the Australian Aboriginal tribes who lived a stone-age life in my own area until just 150 years ago. Last night I cycled home through the rain and 6ºC and although I wore shorts, I did have a snug waterproof jacket and I knew I had a dry home with a warm log fire just 15 minutes away - something that made me admire the natives of this area even more.

I still skip a midday meal, though I may drink herbal tea or plain hot water in winter. In autumn I had an apple or two during the day and I also nibble on cocoa beans some days. The palaeo way is low-carb and low-carb means avoiding hormonal hunger. The palaeo way is also eating when you are hungry - but note that people on a low-carb diet experience hunger less frequently (that is, they don't experience 'hormonal hunger' [2]) than those who consume a contemporary diet of refined starches and sugars. I am confident day-long fasting was part of normal palaeo life: people would not bother to go hunting as soon as they felt hungry (as we go to the fridge or the shops today). At other times of hunger they would defer a hunt for a day to participate in a planned hunt with others; at yet other times a hunt would be unsuccessful. We can use these scenarios to model our own eating patterns to best match the expectations of our genome. [1]

I have heard many references to food - mainly meat - rotting in the colon. This is commonly cited by vegetarians and those who embrace detoxing. I have not followed it up, but I see no references to it in the media generally; nor have I come across it in my reading about hunter-gatherer diets. It smells to me of the sort of story that appeals to the prejudices of vegetarian activists and so is adopted uncritically and spread by them with self-righteous self-justification. Much of the mass in a healthy colon comprises healthy, active bacteria, but to describe the food matter their as 'rotting' leads one to an unjustifiable judgement on the natural and healthy digestive processes for which our colons wwre designed. I would expect rotting food to lead to putrid-smelling farts, but my farts are not putrid.

Your professor Pirlet may be right, but I always ask myself if humans in the palaeolithic could have followed any recommended dietary protocols. Homo sapiens are opportunistic omnivores (a fact that may help explain contemporary obesity). Furthermore, I always think of the human organism in its palaeolithic environment (level and type of activity, food availability, amount of sleep, variety of stressors/meliors, pollutants etc.) and I find that many contemporary dietary recommendations are based on the results of monitoring (far too briefly) people whose lifestyle is far from palaeolithic - and thus their hormonal cycles will also be un-palaeolithic, even though their metabolism has evolved to operate optimally in the palaeolithic environment. I have blood tests every year and am proud that many results are "abnormally" high or low - who would want to be normal in comparison with the average Westerner of my age!

I am not so sure about "our immune system, (400 sqm surface, if rolled out) which gets weaker with age...", at least not before about age 75 if you keep active and retain youthful hormonal cycles and youthful metabolic activity. I am only 61, so I may - someday soon, perhaps - begin to feel old. But most days I feel a positive exuberance, absence of tiredness, optimism and enjoyment of hard work and exercise. I am not confident that shifting to professor Pirlet's protocols would improve on that! I looked at his website and used Google's translate function to read some of the work you referred me to. I would be prepared to read more (in English only, I'm afraid). However, I should say that I do not think medical doctors are the professionals best-placed to prescribe on human health and well-being. They are too reductionist and avoid the evolutionary paradigm in favour of narrow fact gathering about pathologies in their area of academic expertise. Professor Pirlet may not, of course, fit this model, but I find my criticism applies generally to the medical profession.

Looking back on my own time as a father, I took my sons on long (one-week) walks in the Australian bush, but regret I did not do it more often and passed on to them a more comprehensive understanding of the surrounding environmental processes. I should also have spent less time at work, and doing work brought home and more time providing an example to my sons of practical skills, particularly gardening and using hand tools for wood work. I am pleased that we did not have a television set till my sons were in secondary school - they never gave any signs of being bored for more than a few minutes and they never "treated" their boredom by switching on a television set. We had thousands of books in the house and they had practical hobbies like building fires, explosives, reading, climbing trees, bicycling, kayaking, swimming, rowing, improving torches and hi-fi, learning languages (for fun - not those taught by their school!), playing music, making wood and metal objects (including blacksmithing), sketching, writing stories, designing objects etc. You can help your children by deflecting them away from canned media into practical pastimes and by providing yourself as a model and by having the skills, tools and facilities to enable them to develop their own practical skills without being constrained by the absence of resources and experienced advice. Let your children discover, through their own inner resources, their own ways to overcome boredom - ways that are worlds removed from the contemporary justification of anti-social behaviour "because there is nothing to do". Boredom is a "gift" if responded to naturally.

The beauty of heavy sandbag work is that it calls on the whole body. If part of that chain is injured, weak or otherwise not operating to its optimum, such full-body activity loses the benefits it would otherwise have. Perhaps you could use a heavy sandbag for one and two-handed chest presses and to "wrestle" from one side of your body over to the other when you lie on your back. Begin with a weight you can manage (say 30kg) and work up from there, adding weight as soon as you can manage eight wrestles in each direction without a break. Use a gym mat to provide sufficient comfort. You might also try gymnastic rings - they will not stress your legs:

After writing the above, I asked my younger son if my recollections about his childhood were fair. His comment follows shortly.

My son is now 29 and a father and living off-grid in the wilderness. He's a competent builder, blacksmith, brazer, knife maker, cheesemaker, butcher, hunter, brewer, distiller, gardener, felt-maker and clothes maker/repairer.

“Yes, Biggles and Bunter were my constant companions.  Taking stuff apart would have been the thing I did most, with the result that I can do it now and almost always get it back together again, in working order. While I remember feeling bored, I can never remember not doing something about it, even if it was just sitting down with a book or taking apart something valuable. Or annoying [my older brother]. We never had a TV in the house, as far as I can remember, until Mum got that little one after we'd started uni. Certainly after 2000. There was always a computer in the house after 1993, though, and games were frequently played (too much, perhaps?). The computer, being more interactive, is less insidious than the TV, and even games are more or less an interactive story.”

One more thing - can I recommend this book for your children:

Fritz Mühlenweg's: Big Tiger and Christian. That's the English translation of the first part of a longer story available only in German.

This book had a lasting and positive impact on both my sons. I read it aloud to them every evening over a few weeks and they both read and re-read themselves it over the following years.

Hope this helps with your youngsters.


1. For more on the differences between the Palaeolithic and the present day, see notes on the Evolutionary Health Principle   Back to text

2. For the best description of hormonal hunger, see Rob Faigin's book Natural Hormonal Enhancement. Rob's book also deals with exercise, diet and good health generally.    Back to text

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