If you already into Paleo, you know the advantages of eating the way you were built to eat.
Unsurprisingly, moving the way you were built to move has similar benefits. As well as preparing you to face the physical demands of an unpredictable world, exercise improves your immune system, lowers your risk of diabetes, osteoporosis, and stroke, promotes heart health, and increases longevity – and even more importantly, it keeps your body strong and your immune system functioning even as you age, so you can still enjoy your “golden years.”
Getting regular exercise also improves your quality of life by reducing stress, preventing depression, improving memory, and helping you sleep better. Of course, let’s not forget about the fact that exercise is a great tool to develop looking good, lean and muscular body. There’s nothing wrong in desiring and developing a sexy physique.
The Paleo approach to fitness allows your body to reap all the rewards of physical activity, while avoiding the possible negative effects of forcing your body to move in ways it wasn’t designed for.
Paleo exercise is based on the same principle as the Paleo diet: do what you’re designed to do. In this sense, Paleo exercise can be as radical a departure from standard American practice as the Paleo diet: “exercise” means incorporating movement into your whole life, not just starting your day with an hour at the gym. Essentially, exercise should complement your healthy diet in strengthening and supporting a body capable of meeting real-world physical challenges.
There is no one peremptory approach or official Paleo fitness program. In general, the Paleo lifestyle emphasizes natural movement over machine-based exercises and brief but intense strength training workouts over extended sessions of steady-state cardio.
Too much cardio is the exercise equivalent of “healthy whole grains:” touted by the Department of Health, recommended by doctors everywhere, and damaging to your entire system. “Chronic cardio” keeps you in a constant “fight or flight” mode, increasing cortisol levels, inflammation, and damage to your cells from free radicals.
On top of the increased stress from the exercise itself, the high-carb diet required to sustain chronic cardio harms your body in the long term by raising your insulin levels.
This is to discourage an addiction to cardio, Paleo exercise programs stress the importance of rest and recovery time. Workouts should leave you strong and energized, not constantly sore and exhausted, and exercise should never feel like a cruel form of torture you have to force yourself through. Fitness is important, but it should support your body, not dominate your life.
The most important aspect of any exercise program is how well it works for you: experiment with any and all of the programs below until you discover what best fits your abilities and goals.
There were no cross trainers in the Paleolithic. While exercise machines fit conveniently into time-crunched modern schedules, they only work a narrow range of muscles and rarely mimic any movement you might need to do outside a gym.
When you spend 30 minutes moving in a regimented, mechanical way and then sit for the next eight hours, you’re fundamentally disconnected from your body’s natural activity patterns.
Overall Strength and Conditioning
CrossFit is the most popular overall fitness program in Paleo circles. Famously unspecialized, CrossFit builds overall fitness through workouts that incorporate bodyweight exercises and Olympic lifting into a program you can scale to meet your own fitness level. CrossFit affiliates do charge much higher monthly fees than many commercial gyms, but if a membership is out of your budget, you can follow along at home.
CrossFit workouts are known for intensity verging on insanity. If you’re not enthused by the thought of cranking out some of the crazier work out of days and just want to stay fit and healthy. The program focuses on functional strength, discouraging “chronic cardio” and isolation exercises.
It also stresses the importance of moving your body through play: exercise shouldn’t be torturous! While it’s not for serious athletes, such program is a great basic Paleo fitness program that doesn’t require a burdensome time commitment or any fancy equipment.
Another workout program grounded in the Paleo diet is “everyday paleo life and fitness”. This program posts daily workouts with instructions, and the forums let you connect with a community, ask questions, and even upload videos.
More Paleo-friendly resources for overall fitness include the Nerd Fitness blog and the incredibly supportive and helpful community at the site’s forums (including one dedicated to the Paleo diet). Nerd Fitness focuses on bodyweight exercises and workouts you can take anywhere.
While programs programs discussed above focus more on overall conditioning, Stronglifts, Starting Strength, and Leangains are specifically designed to increase your strength and muscle mass through powerlifting.
These programs all have three basic common features:
* they encourage compound lifts over isolation exercises
* free weights over machines,
* and lifting heavier weights at fewer reps.
Compound lifts build strength more efficiently than isolation exercises, by working more muscle groups with each exercise.
Training with free weights is much more effective than spending hours on different types of machines, which don’t engage your stabilizer muscles and force your body into artificial positions; these powerlifting programs encourage you to use your entire natural range of motion to gain strength and avoid injury.
Lifting relatively heavy weights at low reps is more useful for building strength than lifting low weights at high reps – Stronglifts, for example, specifies a 5×5 setup: 5 sets of 5 reps each.
Don’t be discouraged if you have to start off by lifting 20 pounds: champion weightlifters weren’t born with barbells in hand, either! And if you need some equipment on a shoestring budget.
Rest and recovery
All of the exercise programs outlined above emphasize the importance of rest. Mainstream exercise culture promotes the idea that the more hours you put in, the better – probably because so many people see exercise as a necessary evil that “allows” them to eat more calories. But the goal of
Paleo fitness is not to burn as many calories as possible in an endless cycle of overeating and painfully increasing your time on the treadmill. All of the programs above incorporate rest days for a reason.
When you do high intensity workouts, leave plenty of time for your muscles to recover, and don’t ignore signs of overtraining. More is not better!
Paleo fitness means whatever way of moving your body works best for you. Paleo exercise has the same basic goal: to improve your health by working with your body, not against it. Aside from general guidelines – focus on natural movement and consistent physical activity; emphasize briefer periods of high intensity work over endless cardio. The programs above are a great start: experiment with them, keep track of your results, and find a way of moving that fits into your life.