Hunter-gatherers weren’t trying to get fit, they were just having fun
“Wildfitness” Founder Tara Wood says this is because our bodies and minds were not designed for gyms, and no matter how much we try to beat them into submission, eventually they refuse to cooperate.
Wood runs a re-wilding retreat that teaches people to approach fitness like the wild animals we once were, rather than like hamsters on a treadmill.
In the wild, she says, physical fitness – along with mental, emotional and spiritual health – is a bi-product of a natural, enjoyable, relaxed lifestyle.
Several months ago, Return To Now published an article about “the caveman’s cure for depression.” Wood says we must look to our hunter-gatherer ancestors for the secret to physical fitness also – the solution to our mental illnesses is pretty much the same as the solution to our physical ailments:
“In their natural habitat, all of [a wild animal’s] senses are alive to anything that moves or smells around it,” Wood says in a Ted Talks presentation. “Their minds have razor-like focus … This heightened alertness to their environment and purpose is something that’s very dulled in captive animals.”
Captive animals suffer physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually because they are cut off from their natural food source, their natural habitat, and their ability to express their natural behavior. Humans are no different, Wood says.
Wood’s typical client spends most of their days indoors “bathed in the cool glow of a screen,” with very limited movement, eating adulterated food. They have very little motivation to exercise – some of them have little motivation to go on living.
“Drop them into wilderness, get them to eat fresh, real food, get them to be physically active outdoors and tell them the rest of the time all they need to do is completely chill out – and within days an incredible awakening and blossoming occurs,” Wood says.
During the course of her one-week re-wilding program, Wood has seen chronic skin disorders and digestive problems clear up, diabetics stop needing insulin, and people in their 60’s, who haven’t run for 20 years, start running again. She’s seen malaise – that the most potent pharmaceuticals and insightful psychologists couldn’t touch – lifted.
“There are no secrets here,” Wood said. “There’s nothing to patent. Wild therapy has been freely available to our ancestors throughout time. It’s simply a matter of putting your animal back in its natural environment.”
Nature knows best
Wood is a biologist, but she thinks scientists often get it wrong when it comes to determining what’s best for human health.
She cited cushioned running shoes as a primary example:
“Science tells us we need this cushioning to absorb the forces associated with running, so our joints don’t wear out. But running is a natural form of human locomotion, as with many animals. You don’t see cats and dogs with knee braces and sore lower backs limping around.
There millions of years of bipedal evolution. Why should we suddenly need shoes now?
The human foot unencumbered by shoes is a masterpiece of design … Running strengthens all parts of our bodies, it doesn’t wear us out. We’ve learned cushioned shoes have been a terrible mistake, millions of injuries millions of shoes later.”
We also don’t need science to tell us that exposing our skin to sunlight enhances our mood or that the sound of fluttering leaves in trees is deeply calming to our minds, she said. For eons our bodies and minds have been molded to our natural environment, she said – we just need to go out and experience it.
Three tips for city dwellers who want to drink from the “elixir of wildness:”
“Food is simple – eat fresh, real, local food – food that’s come as directly as possible from the earth, sky or water,” Wood said.
While much of the advice from gyms and personal trainers is focused on fat-burning and muscle building, Wood recommends we imitate movements we would have done in our evolutionary origins, like climbing, balancing, jumping, playing, fighting, dancing, barefoot running and swimming.
“Get outside whenever you can – eat outside, go from A to B outside, train outside, meet friends outside, spend your weekends outside, when you find a restaurant find a table where there’s nothing between your head and the stars.”
Mental motivators for movement:
Wood says much more than half the battle for physical fitness is in our heads. We have to re-wild our minds before we re-wild our bodies.
In deciding which physical activities are best for you, ask yourself if what you are doing is enjoyable and liberating. If not, don’t do it, Wood says.
Wood says we are hard-wired for enjoyment. “Joy is an ancient symptom of doing something that has evolutionary benefit.”
Pain is good. Suffering is not.
“No wild animal would freely do something that causes it to suffer … Suffering kills our motivation and curbs our performance,” she says.
“My first wild discipline is to enjoy what I do.” This means not pushing herself to exercise when she’s tired and only doing things when she’s in the mood.
“The key for transmuting a painful experience into a joyful experience is to do things that inspire us.”
All wild creatures are animated by purpose, Wood says. The biggest dampener on someone’s sense of purpose is motivating them from a fearful or contrived place – “like telling someone they have to lose weight or lower their blood pressure.”
There are far more interesting reasons to move than physical health benefits, she says. “Martial arts is an amazing way to master ourselves and get more skillful, dancing is an amazing way to express ourselves and celebrate, cross-country running is a way to connect with nature, team sports is a way to connect with each other – these are wild motivations that our wild mind understands.”
Environmental challenges make us stronger and more adaptable. Therefore, exposing ourselves to sub-optimal conditions (running in the snow, for example) might do us some good, Wood says. The purpose of this is shifting people’s focus from their ailments to their natural “anti-fragility.”