If your office were in very dangerous, prehistoric predator-infested Jurassic park or on a wild African savannah circa 70, 000,000 B.C., 100,000 B.C. or anytime in between, chances are that on the way to or from it, you would have gotten some serious fitness-enhancing exercise.
Spotted and chased by a pack of hungry, lightning-fast, clawing velociraptors or T-Rexes several hundred yards behind you, you would have bolted for your life and not only enjoyed the fitness benefits of a terror-stricken, blood-pumping sprint, but also experienced substantial facial muscle and neck-toning benefits.
Grimacing, wide-eyed with terror while alternately twisting and whipping your head and neck, non-stop, left and right, as you desperately tried to look back over your shoulders to see how close and where the raptors were, you would have given those body bits and associated muscles a fabulous workout.
If, by sheer luck, you made it to high grass, you would have crouched, stooped and squatted, to make yourself small and less visible. When they sniffed you out and if your luck still held up, the nearest tree would have been close enough for you to dart to it and do what you, as one of our prehistoric ancestors, excelled at: pull yourself up the tree trunk and branches, and, scrambling, climb to the top to save your life.
But today, unless your office is in sight and in the sights of some far-away urban battle-zone paramilitary snipers, you will enjoy none of those fitness gains. You probably never run that fast or far, never twist your neck like goose-stepping troops passing the reviewing stand in a May Day parade; never crouch, stoop or squat (unless you’re looking for the TV remote under the sofa), nor ever do even a single pull-up outside the gym you’ve been planning to join.
The result: (enhanced risk of ) flabby arms, turkey wattles and double or triple chins, neck wrinkles, non-existent lats and a washed-out rather than washboard set of abs. Safety has dearly cost you fitness—and perhaps in two senses:
- diminished physical fitness
- diminished genetic fitness.
The associated genetic costs will be denominated in terms and units (namely genes’ survival probabilities and utilities) of natural selection—including what Darwin called “sexual selection”, i.e., being selected (or rejected) for traits attractive (or unattractive) to prospective breeding mates.
The Case for Darwinian Office Exercise
What makes this idea of “Darwinian exercise”—or “paleolates”, as the www.paleolates.com name suggests (resonating with a “paleolithic diet” and “pilates”)— especially interesting and relevant to the modern office worker is that
1. Darwinian exercise comprises very beneficial exercises that are generally ignored and rarely if ever performed, either because we are unaware of them, regard them as insignificant, find them to be unnatural in the modern world (e.g., the head twisting and grimacing, standing on our tip-toes while stretching to touch the ceiling or reach for dangling fruit, or crouching), or think they are too hard (e.g., pulling oneself up on a bar or branch, or climbing vertically).
Revealingly and consistent with my take on the benefits of Darwinian exercises, the kind of generally ignored head and neck twisting I’ve described as Darwinian is included among the set of equipment-free office exercises the Mayo Clinic recommends.
2. We seem, instead, to favor other exercises that are less “natural” less useful and/or are, in some instances, harder (e.g., push-ups or the Mayo Clinic- also recommended standing thigh stretch, which involves grabbing your foot and pressing it against your butt, shown here).
To the extent that any given exercise promotes only physiological (e.g., cardio) fitness, but not Jurassic Park-survival fitness (e.g., flight from or fight with predators, pursuit of mates, search or reaching for food, or construction of shelter), it is less natural and useful than another that promotes both kinds of survival fitness (that, in turn, ultimately serve and promote genetic fitness as well).
For example, the swimming motions of “the swim” dance of the 60s would probably have been more relevant to survival (during escapes from aquatic predators) than jumping jacks (unless these would have been used to distract the attention of a T-Rex from your kids).
“Frank Forencich wrote an essay that I particularly like, called ‘Sculpted by cats’. He writes of a time when big cats were far more widespread than they are now, and preying on our ancestors. Thus, those ancestors’ behaviour was in part dictated by sharing the land with their predators, and evolving particular traits or skills as a consequence. As Katy explains, we are now ‘sculpted by chairs instead.”
Push-ups and the hand-assisted grab-your-ankle thigh stretch also seem to fall into the “unnatural” non-Darwinian (promoting only physiological fitness or, when overdone, no fitness at all) exercise category—unless ancient predators would have fallen all over themselves in giggle fits watching such pointless efforts to survive a looming attack (whereas running, head twisting, crouching, pulling oneself up and climbing would have, to those carnivores, been no laughing matter, indeed).
This difference, with respect to “Darwinian naturalness”, can also be illustrated by the contrast between karate and ballet and the unequal contributions they could have made, respectively, to Pleistocene-era savannah survival—while allowing that karate and ballet moves would have been useful in securing a mate, either by repelling or fending off (other) males (with karate) or by attracting them (with ballet).
Even running may have natural Darwinian and artificial unnatural forms, with quite different benefits and implications. Is it not possible that paleolithic running from or after something–in short bursts and sprints–may be generally better for us than marathon jogging (a practice that reportedly amuses and bemuses Australian bushmen), which lacks the intense adrenalin boosts and discourages the common sense to keep it short and infrequent enough to make hip replacements unnecessary?
Then there’s the seeming paradox of disciplined martial arts: Although initially “unnatural” to the evolutionarily untrained eye, karate reverse punches and roundhouse kicks are quintessentially natural and effective Darwinian exercises, at least to the extent that they promote surviving attacks as well as physiological fitness.
However, this seeming unnaturalness of karate is offset by consideration of Chinese kung fu, which, even if not practiced in Jurassic park, was modeled on natural, survival-enhancing animal movement, in forms such as the “crane” and “tiger”, which evolved, were tested and were proved long before Homo sapiens adopted and adapted them. (Check out this National Geographic video link to see a gripping man vs. tiger demonstration of the power of the tiger style).
Presumably, as is analogously argued in the natural food vs. GMO debate, to the extent that any given movement and exercise has been tested and proved over the eons, it should at least be no more dangerous, if not safer, than some invented in recent times by fitness gurus, e.g., countless ab crunches with heavy weights.
(My own experience with martial arts training recommends exercising caution in selecting moves and instructors to accept: On one occasion, despite my doubts, I followed my black-belt instructor’s directive to block a powerful, fast incoming roundhouse kick from a veritable giant by directly smashing his incoming granite shin with both of my forearms using a defense aptly named “monkey block”—given my compliant stupidity and the resulting pain and damage to my arms.
In light of that kind of traumatic experience and following the logic of my argument, I’m strongly inclined to assess any exercise in terms of its “Darwinian fit”—i.e., how well it fits into the historical evolutionary scheme of things as proven to be both useful from the standpoint of natural selection and safe.)
As for ballet moves, perhaps Jurassic Park or savannah ballet could have functioned much like the ballet of North American sage grouse males and been natural in some not so obvious way.
Male sage grouse array themselves on a designated courtship area called a “lek” for the purpose of repeatedly inflating their chests enormously, to impress picky females, who, mysteriously, attach a lot of weight to these colorful scripted exercises—ultimately choosing the best performers. As a form of Darwinian exercise, it seems to be demanding, since the participating males lose a substantial amount of weight, if not gaining a mate doing it.
The example of the sage grouse strongly suggests that among any seemingly utterly pointless exercises you may be doing, there may be some that are making you irresistible to some mating-minded observer—a hypothesis strongly confirmed, at least, in fitness clubs, aerobics classes, yoga studios and some gyms. Chalk that up to Darwinian sexual selection.
3.Many of these Darwinian exercises can now be voluntarily performed in the safety of the office, rather than, of ancient necessity, in Jurassic or savannah kill-zones. This means we can have all of the health, survival and gene-supporting benefits enjoyed by our primeval forbears, but without the fear—except the fear of still looking bad in tights, despite all that exercise.
The Mayo Clinic slide show of 10 office exercises constitutes a useful place to start the sorting and testing process, because it comprises some exercises (such as the neck twist) that meet the Darwinian exercise standard and others that seem not to (the hand-assisted thigh stretch).
However, there is one exercise I wish to recommend, which although utterly modern, totally unnatural and with no counterpart in Jurassic Park, on the prehistoric savannah, or even on the Mayo Clinic’s list, clearly is prudent to adopt as a Darwinian fitness-enhancing exercise (if done in moderation, to avoid repetition-strain damage).
Clicking your mouse to find more Darwinian exercises online.
Note: Before adopting any exercise or diet regimen, always confirm with fitness and health professionals that what you have undertaken or are contemplating doing is safe and beneficial. Since I am neither of those, the foregoing observations and conjectures are not to be construed as medical or professional fitness advice.