For millions of years, people didn’t have to worry about pushing themselves. Life pushed us, with one survival challenge after another. There were moments and days of intense activity followed by moments and days of relaxation. Such is our evolutionary inheritance when it comes to optimal fitness. We need to mix it up if we hope to experience the full benefits of exercise, whether aerobic, strength, flexibility, or balance. Lest you fall prey to under, over, or nonproductive training, this Provision will give you a few pointers for your next workout.
After writing last week about “Go You Chicken Fat, Go” • a 6• minute callisthenic drill set to music in 1962 during the filming of “The Music Man” and distributed to every school in the United States • I decided this week to return to my childhood and to actually do the drill on a daily basis. My routine was to first do the “Dynamic Warm Up” by Ron Jones that I wrote about two weeks ago. That took about 5• minutes. I then did “Chicken Fat“ for another 6• minutes, before going out for a run or bike ride.
The first thing I noticed was that “Chicken Fat” was not nearly as strenuous an activity as I remember it from my childhood. That reflects two things. As a kid, I was usually chubby and out of shape. So naturally I would identify when Robert Preston sang, “Now, struggle up to your feet! Strug…(Struggle!)” after doing ten push ups. It was a struggle back then! This week, however, as a 52-year-old marathon runner, I had a hard time understanding what the big deal was more than 40 years ago. It helps to get in shape.
The second thing I noticed was that “Chicken Fat” includes a variety of fast-pace and slow-pace exercises. It’s not just a frenetic dash from start to finish, as I remembered. It even includes a breathing routine that could fit right in to the yogic Sun Salutation. “Inhale, arms sweep up inward. Exhale, arms out and down. Inhale, slow, every morning. Exhale, clear down.” Ten such breaths, combined with the earlier arm circles and torso twists, make for a well-rounded and complete spate of exercises. It’s a nice increment from the “Dynamic Warm Up,” and a nice prelude to even more vigorous exercise.
The third thing I noticed was that I ran and biked faster, at least in the first mile, than I usually run or bike because of having done the warm up and the callisthenic drill. My muscles were warm and my heart rate was elevated, which meant I was ready to push myself a little harder from the get go of my aerobic routine. We’ll talk more about the benefits of dynamic stretching in a few weeks; for now, however, I want to celebrate the value of light exercises designed to promote general fitness without apparatus.
That is, after all, what exercise amounted to for the broad sweep of human evolution. There was no designated time for working out, since all of life was a workout. Day in and day out, people had to exert themselves in order to hunt, gather, and prepare food, to make, move, and break camp, to protect themselves from the elements and from predators, to entertain themselves, and to socialize in family and tribal groups. There was no such thing as a sedentary existence, let alone a virtual reality; there was only an active existence and a physical reality which, by definition, takes a lot of effort.
Paleontological evidence makes clear that for millions of years people were far more muscular and fit than most people are today. Were these people to be transported through time to the current day, they would rival or exceed professional athletes whose endurance and strength far surpass that of the average person. Survival itself amounted to full-time training, with regular bouts of maximal effort in order to either catch food or to avoid being caught.
That’s where the proverbial “fight or flight response” comes from. For millions of years, it was very real. There were no sedentary dangers and deadlines. There were only existential ones, that required whole-body responses in order to survive. Even those who have never hunted or who never want to hunt can imagine the alertness of tracking an animal, the calm before the storm, and then the absolute frenzy of confronting and killing a wild animal without firearms.
In his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan describes his first and perhaps only experience of hunting in graphic and memorable terms. He found the experience to be “thrilling”:
It embarrasses me to write that, but it is true. I am not by nature much of a noticer, yet here, now, my attention to everything around me, and deafness to everything else, is complete. Nothing in my experience (with the possible exception of certain intoxicants) has prepared me for the quality of this attention. I notice (everything) with a hungry attention, reaching out into its surroundings like fingers, like nerves.
My eyes venture deep into thickets my body could never penetrate, picking their way among the tangled branches, sliding over rocks and around stumps to bring back the slenderest hint of movement. In the places too deeply shadowed to admit my eyes my ears roam at will, returning with the report of a branch cracking at the bottom of a ravine, or the snuffing of a … wait: What was that? Just a bird. Everything is amplified.
Even my skin is alert, so that when the shadow launched by the sudden ascent of a turkey vulture passes overhead I swear I can feel the temperature momentarily fall. I am the alert man.
Since there is nothing I can do to make the encounter happen, my energy as hunter goes into readying myself for it and attempting, by the sheer force of my attention, to summon the animal into my presence. The drama of the hunt links the actors in it, predator and pray, long before we actually meet. Approaching my prey, I instinctively become more like the animal, straining to make myself less visible, less audible, more exquisitely alert. Predator and prey alike move according to our own maps of this ground, our own forms of attention, and our own systems of instinct, systems that evolved expressly to hasten or avert precisely this encounter.
Then it happened. I took my shot. One pig was down; another seemed to stagger. I pumped my gun to fire again but the adrenaline was surging now and I was shaking so violently that my finger accidentally pressed the trigger before I could lower my gun; the shot went wild, skying far over the heads of the rioting pigs. Something like the fog of war descended on the scene.
After it was over, my emotions were surging and confused. The first to surface was this powerful upwelling of pride: I had actually done this thing that I’d set out to do; I had successfully shot a pig. I felt a flood of relief, too, that the deed was done, thank God, and didn’t need to be done again. And then there was this wholly unexpected feeling of gratitude. But for what exactly, or to whom? For my good fortune, I guess, and to my hunting partner, of course, but also to this animal, for stepping unbidden over the crest of that hill, out of the wild and into my sight. More than the product of any labor of mine (save receptiveness) the animal was a gift — from whom or what I couldn’t say • but gratitude seemed in order, and gratitude is what I felt.
As Pollan goes on to recount, the sense of elation didn’t last long. There was hoisting the dead weight around, hanging the carcass from the limb of an oak tree, pulling out the viscera, and butchering the animal on the hood of an ATV. The whole process took a strong stomach and an enormous amount of work, even with a gun. It’s a good thing there are so many calories or kilojoules in an animal, or it wouldn’t be worth the effort.
That’s the way life went for millions of years. From the stillness of tracking to the adrenaline of attacking, from silence to violence, in an instant, only to do it all over again, every day or two, for millions of years. When people were not hunting and gathering, they were getting ready for or recovering from hunting and gathering. They were also dancing, at least several nights a week.
All that began to change with the advent of agriculture, about 10,000 years ago. Farming may be hard work, but it is steady work. The rhythm of tracking and attacking, of silence and violence, is broken. Instead of engaging in regularly intermittent periods of maximal effort, such as killing and cleaning wild animals or making, moving, and breaking camp, farmers engage in relatively steady periods of sub-maximal effort, such as raising cattle or crops in one location. And that’s before industrialization and automation! Today’s farmers use machines to reduce the effort even further. Never in history have so few worked so little to feed so many as we do today.
The point here is not to promote hunting (I have never done that myself) nor to denigrate modern civilization (although we are stressing out both the planet and human wellness); the point is to follow the evolutionary trail in order to identify the forms and patterns of exercise for which our bodies are best suited and designed. On that score, the experience of hunting and gathering is instructive since that was the experience of human beings and other animals for millions of years. Without the protective canopy of civilization, our way in the world proceeds in fits and starts. It is a precarious way, requiring both strength and aerobic fitness in order to cope with the vicissitudes of life.
My guess is that no one wants to go back to the days of being predators and prey. Those were tough days filled with plenty of adrenalin-pumping fights, flights, and frights. But we can learn from those days in order to optimize our activity and exercise patterns. We can replicate the rhythms of pushing ourselves to the max and then backing off for a day or two, with seasonal rhythms of greater and lesser intensity, in order to develop the endurance, strength, flexibility, and balance our bodies require.
It’s no accident that these rhythms are exactly what exercise physiologists discover in their laboratories and recommend in their fitness programs. They are discovering the ancient inheritance that is common to us all. Undertraining and overtraining are both equally problematic when it comes to optimal fitness. So, too, are repetitive activities with little to no variation as to intensity, duration, nature, angle, and object. Imagine, once again, the range of physical and emotional challenges involved with a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. The closer we come to replicating such challenges, the closer we will be to optimal fitness. This involves:
- Alternating high-exercise with low-exercise periods (perhaps several months at a time)
- Alternating high-intensity with low-intensity exercises
- Alternating long-duration with short-duration exercises
- Alternating aerobic with resistance exercises (perhaps by day)
- Alternating between activities and routes
- Alternating muscle groups
- Alternating exertion and rest
Such variety is not only the spice of life, it is the source of life. It makes us feel good to push our limits and then to back off in recovery. There was a time when we didn’t have to push ourselves; life pushed us, day after day. It’s not like that anymore for many people, at least not very often, so we have to push ourselves in order to get back in the rhythm of life.
We’ll write next week about some of the specific ways to push ourselves in aerobic exercises and resistance training. For now, it’s enough to realize that steady, moderate activities are not sufficient to promote optimal fitness. Without regular, intermittent periods of maximal effort we will not thrive in body, mind, or spirit. We will not be the people we hope to be.
Coaching Inquiries: How could you push yourself this week in at least one form of physical exercise? How could you go beyond gentle or moderate activities to vigorous activities, if only for a few seconds or minutes? What activities would be the best ones for you to kick up a notch? Who could become your personal trainer in this journey?
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LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)
Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob..
I just listened to the recording that you mentioned in your last Provision, Just Move, and Chicken Fat is brilliant! I did not have the privilege of having that in school. I was however Marcellus Washburn in “The Music Man” who sang “Shipoopi.” Just as rousing as the Chicken Fat song but about women and kissing :-). As someone who the doctor just told to “get moving” every day for 30 minutes, your article resonated loud and clear. I will put Chicken Fat on my iPod to use while walking and remember my youth. Thanks and peace.
I think I took your last Provision literally. Yesterday I “just moved.” 🙂 I’m tickled and delighted to no longer be renting. Albeit after a most stressful renovation, I’m happy as can be. This house has courtyards, gardens, and joy! I’m glad Provisions showed up to make me feel right at home. Thanks!
Excellent site – do keep up the good work.
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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