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The caveman exercise plan

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The city clearly isn’t very good for our bodies. Urban living puts us into a constant state of high alert, as evidenced by the fact that those raised in cities have a 21 percent increased risk of anxiety disorders and 39 percent increased risk of mood disorders compared to those raised in rural areas,1 and their incidence of schizophrenia is also notably higher.2 Other research has shown that the brains of those living in cities are more active in two areas: the amygdala, an area of the brain involved in fear processing, and the cingulate cortex, which is involved in controlling emotion and dealing with environmental adversity – a recipe for depression and anxiety.3

Much of the research in this area has focused on the growing alienation of children from nature. A review of the literature showed that time spent in the great outdoors reduces children’s likelihood of being overweight, and that being away from daily routines in this way improves children’s relaxation, mood and ability to focus, and increases intergenerational social interactions, all of which help to reduce symptoms of learning difficulties such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).4

We know that we feel better the more contact we have with nature, but humans have tried to ignore that as we historically moved towards city living. But since we have evolved as part of nature, our growing separation from the natural world is detrimental to our entire being, as well as to the environment.

Psycho-neuro-immunology (PNI) is the study of the interaction between psychological processes and the nervous and immune systems.5 It is sometimes referred to as the modern version of mind-body medicine – an acceptance that our physical, mental, emotional and even spiritual selves are completely intertwined and indeed only separated by language.

Leo Pruimboom, PhD, is founder of the Natura Foundation, an “international knowledge center for clinical psycho-neuro-immunology.” For his doctoral thesis, he followed 51 healthy test subjects and two people with fibromyalgia on a 10-day mimic of living as our hunter-gatherer ancestors did (in consort with the land) and analyzed how this affected them metabolically and immunologically.6

The results clearly demonstrated beneficial effects on various health-related parameters, including significant decreases in body weight and body mass index and the regulation of factors such as insulin (the hormone that regulates blood sugar), triglycerides (fats in the bloodstream) and total cholesterol.

As a starting point, Pruimboom observed that chronic activation of the immune system is caused by the modern challenges of overeating (with low intake of vegetables, fruit and fish), sitting for protracted periods of time, insufficient sleep, physical inactivity and unresolved psycho-emotional problems. Accumulation of these risk factors prompts the long-term activation of stress responses and bacteria entering the bloodstream, leading to chronic low-grade inflammation, which he believes should be considered the cause of most, if not all, chronic non-communicable diseases.

He argues that exposure to stress factors from our past as hunter-gatherers can have a beneficial effect on health and could help to prevent typical ‘Western diseases of civilization’ such as diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, cancer, arthritis, depression, autoimmune diseases and chronic fatigue syndrome.

This study may have been a little extreme for many; as it’s described, the participants “engaged in a 10-day trip through the Pyrenees. They walked over 8 miles per day on average, carrying an 18-lb backpack. Raw food was provided and self-prepared, and water was obtained from waterholes. They slept outside in sleeping bags and were exposed to temperatures ranging from 50 to 107°F.”

With blood samples taken before, along the way and after the trip, it was concluded that “coping with ‘ancient mild stress factors,’ including physical exercise, thirst, hunger and climate, may influence immune status and improve anthropometrics [physical measurements] and metabolic indices in healthy subjects and possibly patients suffering from metabolic and immunological disorders.”

Good vs bad stress

This positive stress is often called ‘eustress’ and refers to these and other challenges that we need to provoke a resilience response. Weight-bearing exercise to prompt bone growth or working out a new route to test your cognitive function are well-known examples of ‘good’ stress, but the need to stress ourselves extends to our entire being.

Other studies have shown that mild stress initially produces a proinflammatory response, which may subsequently give rise to recovery from the reigning state of chronic low-grade inflammation and the return to homeostasis, or balance of the body’s systems.7 This mild, short-term stress is very different from the damaging psycho-social stress from relentless emotional, information and technological overload that most of us in the developed world face on an everyday basis.

The stressors from nature encountered by participants in Pruimboom’s study might have encouraged inflammatory cells to migrate to the areas of the body that need the highest immune surveillance because they are most susceptible to the damaging effects of the environment, including the skin, the gastrointestinal tract and the lungs – as has been reported in previous animal studies of stress response.8 Some subjects on the trip had symptoms in two of these regions – diarrhea and small skin scratches – but all were stronger and more resilient by the end. This included one man with arrhythmia who stopped taking medication during the trip and did not suffer from arrhythmic episodes in the 36-month period after the study’s end.

Other factors may also have contributed to the positive results:

•The participants were disconnected from daily trouble and ruminations, reducing internally generated inflammatory danger signals.9

• They were prohibited from using cell phones and other electronic devices.
The theory remains controversial, but chronic mobile device use may increase oxidative stress and negatively affect the production of anti-inflammatory substances in saliva.10

• They were not exposed to artificial light. The participants went to bed when the sun went down and rose with the sunrise. Disrupting this “natural day-night rhythm,” as most of us do for much of our lives, has been associated with inflammation, heart disease, obesity and depression.11

• They engaged in spontaneous physical activity before food and water intake, which is known to lower the inflammatory response after eating. Being sedentary before eating has been identified as an independent risk factor for cardiovascular, metabolic and other noncontagious disord

Clearly it is not practical for most of us to go to the extremes of this trip, but reducing exposure to technology, maintaining bedrooms with minimal artificial light and earlier bedtimes, moving around before eating and practicing mindfulness to lessen a racing mind are all simple lifestyle changes that we can adopt within our ‘normal’ routine. We can then extend this by getting out into nature more, mimicking our hunter-gatherer ancestors’ habits and engaging in eustressors outdoors to support our immune and metabolic health.

Ways to ‘go wild’

Here are a few simple methods for getting back to nature:

Be hardy. Get used to the cold and allow your thermogenic (heat-creation) capacity to raise metabolism. Don’t be afraid of a few scratches and scrapes for immune modulation.

Navigate uneven terrain. Get off the pavement and onto the trails, so that you must continually focus on a naturally mindful activity that fully holds your attention in the present moment.

Explore. The unpredictability and ever-changing natural world can tap into our primal sense of self .

Ways to replicate natural eustressors indoors:

Floor work in yoga, Feldenkrais and Pilates bring attention to our extremities and redirect the immune system back out to the skin, our first barrier of defense.

Dry brushing replicates surface contact with natural elements. Use a hard-bristled brush (you can buy these at good health food stores or online) and brush all over the skin in broad strokes toward the heart to encourage lymphatic flow to support immunity. Avoid any sore areas.

Turn the shower to cold at the end – another thermogenic activator that also encourages circulation to the periphery.

Exercises to try outside

For many city dwellers and workers, green spaces such as parks are the only contact they may have with the natural world. This emphasizes the need to take breaks, relieve stress with walks to these places before eating and get out of town when possible. If this means even just a little greenery on your patio, exercising outdoors rather than inside can add to its beneficial effects.

Loosening standing movements from the Chinese energy movement systems tai chi and qigong are very often practiced within natural settings, as the Taoist tradition they originate from teaches that we need to approach nature not as a thing to be mastered, but as a partner in a relationship. This is a simple sequence that can be done in your yard or a park, whatever the weather:

1) Standing with soft knees, allow arms to rise out and up naturally with the buoyancy of the inhale, drop with the release of the exhale; a simple meditation for connecting to the breath.

2) In stillness, hold hands in front of your belly, fingers slightly apart, completing the circle of the pelvis. In this meditative space, you connect with the belly, and a deeper intuition of ‘what is here right now.’ You can come back to this reflection between each movement.

3) Circling the hips: rotating the pelvis, while the head stays central and knees are soft, allows you to awaken the channels up through the inner legs into the groin and belly. Spend a while here and then change the rotation to feel the difference on the other side.

4) Swinging the arms: allow the arms to swing around the midline of the body, feeling the movement come from the belly, with hands like weights at the end of rope-like arms. Twist through the tissues of the torso, knees soft so that you’re not pulling through them and still feeling connected to the feet.

5) Circling a ball: hold an imaginary football at about eye level or higher, as your neck feels comfortable, and with arms held in a circle to keep the underside of the inner arms soft. Keeping your focus on the ball, rotate it – from the belly, fully in front of your body, bending your knees as you reach it right down past your inner legs.

6) Reaching twist: from holding the imaginary football in front of your chest, inhale to reach one hand back behind you, following it with your gaze to turn from the belly. Exhale to bring it back to join the other hand, and then inhale that back. Move from side to side, bending the knees as the hand moves past the body and retaining focus on the moving hand.

7) Hold a standing meditation, as in the first pose. It will connect you to the ground under your feet, make you notice feelings of wind and air and ever-changing sounds around you, and evoke connection to something beyond the distractions of modern life.



Acta Psychiatr Scand, 2010; 121: 84-93


Bull, 2005; 31: 795-9


Nature, 2011; 474: 498-501


Front Psychol, 2016; 7: 1885


Molecules of Emotion: Why You Feel the Way You Feel, Simon & Schuster UK; 1999


BioMed Res Int, 2016; 6935123


Clin Dermatol, 2013; 31: 18-30


Psychoneuroendocrinol, 2012; 37: 1345-68


Neuroendocrinol Lett, 2010; 31: 19-39


Antioxidants and Redox Signaling, 2013; 18: 622-7; J Laryngol Otol, 2014; 128: 454-62


Work, 2013; 46: 273-82; Curr Biol, 2012; 22: 939-43; Chronobiol Int, 2011; 28: 771-8


Int J Vasc Med, 2012; 947417

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