Thursday, July 17, 2008

Evolutionary Fitness

The conventional wisdom on diet and health has been shifting to a new paradigm that takes as its basis the human body's natural processes, vis a vis our evolutionary heritage as hunter/gatherers. I've documented this new approach in Fast Facts Nation. Our body evolved to eat high energy, high fiber, low carbohydrate foods like wild game, fish, nuts and fruits. We are just now coming to terms with the terrible health consequences of our grain based, carbohydrate rich diets.

There is another side to the fitness equation than diet, and that is exercise. This field too is coming under the scrutiny of an evolutionary approach, and one of the pioneers leading the way is Arthur DeVany. This post from his blog circa 2005, when he started fleshing out the idea of evolutionary fitness, introduces us to the relationship between our paleolithic ancestor's environment and the types and levels of activity that were best adapted to survival in it.
Darwin and Fitness

In developing this idea, I take the Darwinian approach that has been so successful in the new fields of evolutionary psychology and medicine and apply it to physical fitness. But, I integrate a Darwinian perspective with the theory of chaos and complex systems. A deeper look at the evolutionary record, the new revelations in the biological sciences, my scientific work in complex systems, and my own personal experience as a life-long student of fitness tell me that the right model for understanding health and fitness must combine insights from evolution and chaos.

Non Linear Systems

When the body is viewed as a complex adaptive system exploiting evolved mechanisms, it becomes clear that conventional thinking about diets and obesity is wrong. The human organism is an open energy system, operating far from equilibrium. Diet and exercise programs that are mired in linear thinking (calories in/calories out) are inappropriate for understanding human energy metabolism. These models oversimplify the diet and fail to consider the non-linearities in human metabolism.

Ancestral Dynamic Patterns

Intermittent, intense, and playful exercise mimics the activity patterns that were essential to the emergence and evolution of the human species. High intensity, intermittent and brief training mixed with power walking and play is closer than aerobic exercise, high volume weight training, or sedentism to how our ancestors lived. We are hunter-gatherers and have been for all of human and pre-human history. Only 15,000 years have passed since the last Ice Age, not long enough for bodies suited for the sedentary modern age to have evolved. If such bodies ever do evolve they cannot have our minds, for the human mind evolved to live in a brain adapted to an energetic, versatile and dynamic body.

Metabolic Fitness from Chaos

The primary objectives for any exercise and diet program must be to counter hyperinsulinemia (chronically elevated insulin) and hypoexertion (wasting the body’s lean mass through inactivity)—these are the number one health risks in Western society. A natural diet, based on the evolutionary record effectively counters hyperinsulinemia. Intermittent, intense exercise in brief spurts promotes hormone drives that quench hyperinsulinemia and build muscle and bone density that keep you young and lean. These alterations in hormone levels and flux elevate your metabolic fitness.

In the book, I shall present new technology for exercise — power law training — that produces the hormone drives and metabolism that raises insulin sensitivity and lowers fat producing and muscle wasting hormones. The intermittent pattern of power law training is, in reality, as ancient as life itself. Power law training is the technology consistent with the intermittent and chaotic natural dynamics that science finds in all living things; it matches the rhythm of life itself and is found in the movements of wild animals, healthy heart beats, neuronal dynamics in the brain, and the music of Bach.

The Evolutionary Fitness Diet

The Evolutionary Fitness Diet is simple and nutritious. You eat nutritionly dense foods, that are low in calories and high in fiber and antioxidants. It will end your carbohydrate cravings and raise your energy level which is depleted by the blood sugar/insulin rebound and high serotonin levels promoted by high calorie foods. The diet is high in natural plant fiber, phenols, flavonoids, and phytochemicals, nature’s own cancer-fighting and antioxidant compounds that coevolved with human beings and were always an important part of the hominid diet before the agricultural and industrial revolutions.

The Evolutionary Diet is more than a diet, it is a program that integrates physical activity, food variety, and timing of meals to promote the growth and retention of lean muscle mass and shed fat. According to the research and my own experience, the sophisticated eating patterns of the Evolutionary Fitness Diet provide the anti-aging benefits of severe calorie-restricted diets without the costs.

Mind-Body Integration

Our brains and bodies are dynamic objects that thrive on challenge and movement; intermittent intensity brings key adaptations in hormone drives, neurological function, and body composition. The mixture of variety, intermittent intensity, and play of the Evolutionary Fitness program bind perception and kinesthetics to create a dynamic and positive self image which is the reference point on which our knowledge and living are organized. Movement and play build muscle and cognitive maps in the brain and repair the mind/body continuum.

The Big Idea

Your brain and body are evolved for life in 40,000 BC; take care of the hunter gatherer body and mind that you carry in that pin-striped suit.

DeVany's blog carries four years worth of blog entries chronicling the development of the idea. He is now charging a subscription for new content, has been developing seminars and will soon release a book. Interestingly, DeVany shares a mutual intellectual admiration with Nassim Nicholas Taleb, whose book The Black Swan explores power law dynamics at work in the world around us, the nature of extreme events and risk, and the evolutionary environment that fostered a human mind that is ill suited to understand and comprehend the nature of risks posed by our modern global technological society. I've read the book and highly recommend it.

The key to DeVany's approach to exercise is to model the distribution of physical activity that our paleolithic ancestors would have experienced, which followed a power law distribution across levels of intensity, where many hours and days of low level activity like walking were interspersed with short, intense bursts of physical energy - sprinting, climbing, throwing, fighting. This stands the current consensus regime of regular daily routines of moderate to high intensity exercise on its head. Indeed, DeVany has a whole category on his blog dedicated to the excessive exercise habits of amateur and professional atheletes titled Death by Exercise.

I think this idea has legs.

Update: Here's a link to a pdf article where DeVany explains his theory of evolutionary fitness in more detail.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

But, I integrate a Darwinian perspective with the theory of chaos...

Bit of a trend that, isn't it?

Sorry, Duck, but that was too good to resist. Anyway, your post has reinforced my lifelong committment to avoiding the dangers of excessive exercise. From a very young age I recognized my essential hunter-gatherer nature and now I always take care to get a good rest when I come home from the grocery store.

July 18, 2008 7:52 AM  
Blogger joe shropshire said...

Legend says that the guy who invented the Nautilus machine had a mirror in his home gym with a sign over it. The sign said, Exercise Isn't Fun. You are, I believe, missing an opportunity to apply chaos theory and a Darwinian perspective, to the important problem of how to sell a diet book.

July 19, 2008 12:00 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Peter, our ancestors would be proud!

July 19, 2008 3:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Once an individual suffers from obesity or overweight, it becomes highly important for him to trigger off weight loss and altogether weight loss is necessary to keep a whole lot of obesity induced disorders, namely, diabetes, arthritis, high blood pressure et al at bay. Dieting and regular physical exercises can help in achieving weight loss and altogether the “weight loss” section of the website informs you that weight loss medicines such as Phentermine, Xenical etc can also help you trigger off instant weight loss if taken in accordance with the instructions of the doctor.

November 26, 2008 12:10 AM  

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