The main causes of death today are not plagues or famines, war or the common flu. What kills the most today are chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes, a consequence, in many cases, of unhealthy habits. We live longer, but we are sicker. Experts underline the correlation between these conditions, practically null in ancestral societies, and the modern world, where we are increasingly distant from nature. And some bet on a simple solution: if civilization is killing us, it is time to return to our origins.
This is precisely the argument of Marcos Vázquez, creator of the blog Fitness Revolucionario and the health and fitness podcast Radio Fitness Revolucionario, and also author of books such as Salud Salvaje, Invicto and Saludablemente. He argues that the most common health problems today are the result of a conflict between biology and the current environment, a concept he calls "wild health." "This idea makes us understand that most modern chronic diseases – whether we talk about diabetes, obesity, many types of cancer, cardiovascular problems, mental disorders – have to do with the fact that we have reduced or eliminated stimuli to which our genes are very well adapted," explains Vázquez in a telephone conversation with EL PAÍS. These stimuli refer to natural foods, physical activity, strong social connections or exposure to the elements that formed the environment in which we evolved. The big problem is not only the elimination of these elements but also their replacement by others, says Vazquez: "Now we have added in the modern world stimuli to which we are not well adapted, such as sedentary lifestyle, processed foods, superficial online social connections or too much exposure to artificial light, for example."
The Paleolithic invades the gym
Civilization has evolved so fast that our biology has not had time to adapt. To address this disconnection, according to Vázquez, it would be necessary to expose the stimuli and characteristics of the environment in which our ancestors evolved between about 10,000 and 20,000 years ago (at the end of the Paleolithic period), when we still lived in hunter-gatherer societies. Move like them, feed like them, strengthen our social connections and expose ourselves to the natural elements: the sun, the cold, the heat. This is an idea supported by movements such as the paleo diet, paleotraining, or Earthing.
A species in motion
Moving like our ancestors has nothing to do with going to the gym for an hour. For thousands of years, the basis of physical activity has been natural movements, not weighted machines or treadmills. That's where paleotraining comes from, the first training method based on the movements made by Paleolithic man to survive. As its founder, Airam Fernández, explains to this newspaper, these movements are the ones that nobody has to teach us. "Jumping, walking, crawling. They are gestures that are part of our neuromotor heritage. We have evolved so many millions of years with these gestures that we are already born with these learned movement patterns." They have much more benefits than bicep curls and other isometric exercises, because they take advantage of our genetics and incorporate the whole body, not just a group of muscles. "Practicing natural movements helps develop strength, endurance and coordination more efficiently," says Fernandez. Training like this strengthens the mind-body connection and, by promoting more balanced strength, helps prevent injuries.
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Paleotraining trainings mimic as much as possible the physical conditions and needs that were demanded of us when we lived in a wilder environment. Unlike classic training models, which follow a rigid and isolated structure, it is a more unstructured and complete method. In nature, there are no Olympic bars with dumbbells that facilitate grip, and there would never be the need to do five sets of ten repetitions. Therefore, paleotraining works with objects such as cargo logs, stones, ropes and one's own body weight. Fernández points out that if we forget our origin, as mobile beings, we end up with motor deficiencies, flexibility problems, muscle deficiencies, overweight, and all that has serious implications both in physical and mental health and, therefore, in the quality of life.
Eating for nourishment
Our ancestors wouldn't have collected a packet of cookies either. Their diet was based on plants, roots, tubers, fruits, eggs, seeds and meat of all kinds of animals. Unlike modern diets, the Paleolithic was not based on the consumption of cereals, whose prevalence in contemporary diets has had very negative effects on health, according to several studies and indicators such as the increase in gluten intolerance globally. According to experts, the big problem of the current diet is industrialized products. The body is not designed to consume them. "The consequences of not eating based on what we are used to is that physiological responses are harmful to the body," explains Fernández. A poor diet causes inflammation, a factor that can be key in chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer or Alzheimer's. Coronary heart disease is the leading cause of death in the world, according to the National Center for Cardiovascular Research (CNIC). And, only in Spain, the figures point to 5.1 million diagnoses of type 2 diabetes per year, and almost 280,000 cases of cancer, 30-40% of which could be avoided by having healthier habits, says biologist Emilia Gómez Pardo.
"The emotional effect of processed food and beverages is brutal and the food industry knows it perfectly. Design foods that generate immediate pleasure and make us feel better for a short time, which produces a Pavlovian association between what we eat and how we feel. This unleashes addiction and constant dependence on these products," says Fernández. Marcos Vázquez, founder of Fitness Revolucionario, sums up the paradox perfectly: "We are overfed and undernourished." In contrast, ancestral diets achieve anti-inflammatory responses and their benefits are overwhelming, Fernández and Vázquez clarify. Among other factors, they improve glucose control and insulin sensitivity, promote fat loss and reduce the risk of blood pressure. In short, when we eat what the body really needs, we live better: we feel better, we have more energy and we are not so slaves to cravings.
Some of the staples that make up the paleo diet. Aamulya (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
If depriving ourselves of physical activity and eating processed products is harmful to the body, so is living too comfortably. We spend the day in offices, homes and cars with devices that perfectly control the temperature. We wait until the water is hot enough to get into the shower. Most can't imagine skipping breakfast. "These constant comforts have weakened us both physically and mentally," says Marcos Vazquez, a certified engineer in nutrition and disciplines such as CrossFit, kettlebells and personal training. He talks about a phenomenon calledhormesis, the idea that stress in small doses is favorable. Exposure to natural stressors such as natural light, hunger, cold, heat or intensive exercise elicit essential adaptive responses and continue to have positive impacts on health. Sunlight regulates our circadian rhythm, and cold and heat strengthen our thermoregulation systems, fasting can improve metabolism and exercise strengthens all body systems, especially the heart.
We are social beings
Another essential factor for human health is socialization, but not in the way that currently prevails. The need to establish social connections is engraved in our DNA, Francisco Giner Abati, professor of Anthropology at the University of Salamanca, tells this newspaper. We used to live in tribes because that allowed us to survive more easily. "Living in a group is a phylogenetic adaptation and is not exclusively human, but something we share with other mammals. Only within the group do we reproduce, help each other to survive, to look for food and defend ourselves. Loneliness was a death sentence," explains Abati. Therefore, our happiness is intimately linked to social relationships.
Despite being more connected than ever thanks to social networks, we are also more isolated. In a way, loneliness continues to kill us. "We are much more mentally ill than our predecessors, who had a more humane and less stressful lifestyle," Abati continues, underscoring the particularly damaging effects of the modern way of socializing on young people. "In these generations there is enormous social poverty, a craving for communication that is only partially filled with social networks, because they are virtual. We have to make the effort to seek a more humane lifestyle, "says the professor.
So-called wild health does not intend for us to return to how we lived thousands of years ago. "It is not about returning to the caves, but taking advantage of all the good of the modern world while trying to recover some of the stimuli of the wild world that will improve our physical and mental health," clarifies Marcos Vázquez. Why? His answer is simple: to have quality of life. Travel, being able to play with children or grandchildren, avoiding injuries. Make the most of the fact that we live longer than ever.