Thursday, 29 January 2009

When the Student is Ready, the Teacher Arrives

I have waxed lyrical about the paleo concept before. It cannot be owned nor 'branded'. It is noetic and intuitive.

You can give people a paleo scenario such as how they would go about hunting an animal, escaping a predator or simply getting them to detail how they would survive on a desert island and they will implicitly get the idea. (The only real mistake people make is in assuming that hunter-gatherers regularly endured starvation - but a migratory population can follow herds of prey and unlike a damaged crop, if your prey escapes there is another one around somewhere!)

Once you get the idea it is easy to abstract and transport that idea to a modern environment and implement the principles in to your lifestyle. It is easy to get it right. You have a robust framework from which to work.

Cynics see it as 'New Age' - particularly prior to engaging with it. They just KNOW that you have to 'eat less and do more'. To them, Paleo seems wishy washy and too easy, but it is this ease that makes paleo so powerful. What's more, you can extrapolate form this base understanding - and so you engage on a journey of self discovery along a path from which it is actually pretty hard to get lost....

One thing I have noticed about the Paleo community is its breadth. There are a lot of blogs and sites out there pushing the paleo message. These blogs may cover much of the same material but by force of conviction, they each maintain their own flavour.

Most of the sites I stumble across contain some nugget buried in there somewhere. If not a new exercise or variation, a link to some interesting book or paper - or maybe even some personal reflection on how paleo has changed their life. These sites might suggest a novel adventure or a recipe. Paleo is a broad church. What is more this powerfully driven community creates an rich output, most which is done free of charge.

In contrast we see the marketeers pushing 'Fatty to Thinny of the Year' on the corporate diet programs. As we all know, these people will have to exercise chronically in a state of hunger for the rest of their life - and will usually have to face obesity again at some point.


The paleo model has obviously marked its 10,000-15000th anniversary and is probably closer to its 40,000th to 200,000th anniversary. That is a long time for our behaviours to become ingrained. Many behaviours (such as fear of heights and fear of loud noises), run deeper still and suggest an even greater lineage.

Thus, it is no coincidence that many people hit upon the same kind of ideas and come to the same conclusions within the paleo community - even when operating in relative isolation.

I talked recently of how I got clues to my training from how my children play and have formulated the concept of the Play Test. Of course this is not a revelation in either concept nor execution - anyone who has watched a nature program (particularly about mammals), could tell you the same thing and would certainly arrive at the same conclusions.

Similarly I have always seen my interest in climbing as an extension to the tree climbing I loved as a child. Whether escaping a woolly rhino or a gang from the next street, the skill of climbing quickly upwards could serve you really well (as would the bodybuilder's puffer-fish technique of looking bigger).

Maybe it was easy for me to fall in to paleo given my background in climbing. Climbers like John Gill have a rich history in gymnastics and bodyweight feats. Gill's path is in no way unique amongst climbers, although he was/is undoubtedly something of a pioneer, bringing his own flavour to fitness.

The training Gill was doing 50 years ago would fit the 'athletic' paleo model - short of a bit of sprinting and throwing. But the extension of play to adult life and the ability to primarily escape-agility and the broad spectrum control of his body are paleo to the core. The results can be seen on his site where he documents senior athletes (70+), who are still capable of incredible physical feats (check out the profiles Gill has compiled).

Gill himself seems to have come along a several decades after a previous paleo-minded movement.

One Hundred Years Ago
There looks to have been something of a fragmented and embryonic paleo movement in all but name some time around the 1900s. This thought was reaffirmed recently when I came across the work of Georges Hebert and his concept of 'Movement Naturelle' on the Conditioning Research blog.

Over a century ago, in his books 'The Play of Animals' and 'The Play of Man' Karl Groos was driving at the imperatives of play. Interestingly he noted a curious 'rule' that small mammals (including humans), prefer to be the prey in a game of chase. But in larger predators such as wolves, they prefer the role of predator - hence your dog likes to chase a ball whilst your kids will prefer to be chased.

Similarly, Banting's Letter on Corpulence predates Atkins by a century!


So what does all this show? Well to me it shows how modern fitness trends have totally obliterated intuitive diet and exercise. Particularly the fat phobias spawned in 1950s and the jogging trends that have exploded since the 1970s.

Fitness has become dominated by trends from aerobics to eZ-Barbell Curls. Fundamentals have been replaced by fashions and it has resulted in a general public unable to recognise what fitness actually is and how to obtain or maintain it.

Thankfully, we seem to be rediscovering our ancient heritage. There is momentum building behind the paleo concept and the 'breakthrough' should have a real and sustainable impact on health.

'New' Paleo

I have 'ranted' before about my frustrations with the world of fitness and my admiration for the New Paleo guys. People who are walking the walk and showing what is possible within the paleo model.

Of special note is Art DeVaney - who produced an excellent paper from December 2000 on Evolutionary Fitness. Whilst perhaps not completely groundbreaking in its content (Vince Gironda and Mike Mentzer experimented with HIT for years, paleo eating has its roots in the works of Banting, Weston A Price, Steffanson and Cordain and a broader paleo concept had been outlined by Georges Hebert and, I believe, Michael Eades by this time), for me, this paper pulled the various threads of the paleo concept together. (I should point out that his talk of 'gene expression' was and still is somewhat pioneering).

As I read it, it felt like I was stepping in to a pair of shoes - and the laces were pulled tight. The (paleo) shoe suddenly fit! De Vany has written what I consider to be the most succinct, eloquent and erudite paleo article of all time! It is a manifesto for paleo which neatly draws on the full spectrum of paleo tenets. Even now, for more scientifically minded individuals looking to adopt a paleo approach to training, I suggest they read this paper before all else.

Mark's Daily Apple is another great resource that manages to lay a paleo template across modern life. It is a rich source of paleo information and provides a digest of complex topics in manageable form. As always I must mention the inimitable Dr Mike Eades whose tireless work against those who would make 'worthless data confess' is worthy of a post all on its own.

This is where I think the new paleo movement really gets its strength. Rather than the wider 'slimming movement' and its appeal to our respect for doctors/anyone in a white coat - regardless of quality of their advice, there are very smart guys in the paleo world who are the living embodiment of their advice.

In fact I am always surprised by the number of paleo blogs out there and the number is growing. This shit really works and people are being driven to tell the world!


Perhaps the only 'revelation' in this whole paleo model is why in a culture dominated by concerns for health and fitness and concepts of 'natural' and 'organic', we don't trust our instincts a bit more.

I intend to follow this post with a few more on the theme of Feeding Your Mind and the psychological rationale for paleo. Sure, as I said above, we can all work the stuff out - but what do 'experts' reckon?

I hope you stay tuned.


Chris said...


very thought provoking post.

DO you read Peter's blog at Hyperlipid? I thought this post today was interesting and related:

Asclepius said...

Yeah - Hyperlipid is a site I check out with a degree of regularity - I find it pretty technical at times but worth persisting with.

He is another smart guy who walks the walk. That is the kind of person whose opinion I value way more than your average doctor.

We are lucky in 'paleo' as it has drawn in very switched on people and seems to have a well documented history for over a hundred years.

Hyperlipids post on HG/Starving brought back an observation I saw Ray Mears make - how individuals can starve to death whilst surrounded by food that they just 'cannot see'.

"There are none so blind as those that will not see" - an idea you could extend to much of modern medicine and the fitness industry.

This leads me nicely on to a post I have in gestation about my 'hedge-hunter' plans for this spring. Come April I hope to be posting on at least one meal that I have foraged for. I even have a mate lined up who I recently converted to 'paleo' and who is willing to forage with me (and try the mushrooms before I do)!