The lifestyle activities of the hunter-gatherer can give us the place, the purpose, and the moral support needed to get our exercise. Exercise is an excellent deterrent to depression and anxiety.
Why we tend to be inactive
Let’s face it. When struggling with depression, exercise can be very difficult to do.
Why is that?
When working as a shepherd I observed that herd animals, like sheep, will separate from the flock when they are sick. They will stand or lie, posture slumped, head down; they are a picture of depression.
This is called “sickness behavior.”
Sickness behavior is a biological survival technique that accompanies inflammation in the body. It shifts the bodies resources to fighting an infection or healing a serious injury. In the case of the sick sheep, it also protects the flock by separating the injured or infected animal from the herd.
When you have a bad cold or the flu and you just don’t feel like going out — when it seems better to just stay in bed — this is an example of sickness behavior. Inflammation and sickness behavior are normal responses to infection or serious injury.
Depression and sickness behavior share many of the same symptoms. A few of these shared symptoms include a disinterest in social activities, sleepiness, reduced levels of activity, lethargy, difficulty concentrating, feeling inhibited, feeling anxious, and general malaise.
No wonder we find it difficult to exercise.
Chronic inflammation is linked to depression
Chronic inflammation is similar to acute inflammation.
We get acute inflammation when we are sick or injured. It may stick around for a few days or a few weeks until we are well again.
Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is a low-grade inflammation that persists in the body for long periods of time.
Our modern-day lifestyles have contributed to a heightened incidence of chronic inflammation.
While this chronic “lifestyle” inflammation is similar to the acute inflammation experienced from an infection or an injury it is not accompanied by a fever and it may, or may not, be accompanied by pain.
We usually don’t even know when we have chronic inflammation.
Just as acute inflammation can cause sickness behavior, chronic inflammation can cause depression (and a host of other modern-day diseases).
If depression is like a sickness response to chronic inflammation, then it comes as no surprise that depressed people find it difficult to exercise. Our minds and bodies are telling us not to.
Modern “lifestyle” inflammation contributes to inactivity
Chronic inflammation and the depression it causes are maladaptive responses to our modern lifestyle.
Even though most of us know that exercising helps us overcome depression, our biology makes us feel lethargic; we tend to forgo any opportunity to be active.
Our head sags, our shoulders droop, and we lean on our elbows. We become unmotivated and feel withdrawn. We want to go back to bed, pull the covers over our heads, and disengage from life.
When we have a contagious infection or are badly injured, sickness behavior is good for us. However, when we have chronic lifestyle inflammation and depression — this prolonged sickness behavior (depression) is bad for us.
It makes us less active, more inflamed, and more depressed.
It’s just the opposite of what we need!
Lying in bed, or sitting for extended periods of time is bad for our health.
So, “Jumping jacks and chin-ups everyone!”
To that, we say, “Not today, I’m too depressed.”
Lack of physical lifestyle activity contributes to chronic inflammation
Does your day look something like this?
You work at a computer screen or a steering wheel all day. And then you exercise.
(That’s on a good day.)
Alternatively, you forgo exercise altogether and sit on the couch eating chips, texting, watching videos, or playing games on your iPad.
Your school, work, play, food, and social activities require little movement.
You seldom break a sweat, elevate your heartbeat, or breathe deeply.
Industry and technology have eliminated your need to move vigorously or for sustained periods of time.
Sitting at that keyboard, steering wheel, or joystick your major muscles have nearly become obsolete.
Obsolete infrastructure that has to be maintained.
Your muscles are much like an ostrich’s wings, merely guiding you from bed to chair to chair to chair and back to bed again.
Begrudgingly, you run on treadmills and lift weights to maintain this infrastructure.
Or you just sit.
Studies tell us that as little as 20-minutes of moderate exercise reduces chronic inflammation.
What if we could learn to break up our days by finding lifestyle activities that we enjoy; exercise that we don’t even have to think about. Exercise that would reduce stress, reduce our chronic inflammation, and help make depression go away!
Physical lifestyle activities of the hunter-gatherer
In more traditional times, we would have engaged our muscles with our minds — frequently.
For example, stalking a deer would have required simultaneous planning, walking, studying the landscape, the weather, the seasons, and animal behavior. Intent on putting an arrow through the heart of the prey, with bow in hand we would have focused our senses while stalking the game.
Once the arrow was placed we may have had to run after the injured deer, even tracking it for miles. An adrenaline generating struggle may have ensued before a kill was made.
Then the game would have needed to have been dressed, defended from other predators, carried back to camp, prepared, and firewood gathered to cook it. In a few days, the process would have started all over again.
Also, as gatherers of fruits, vegetables, roots, and mushrooms we would have read the lay of the land and known the rhythms of the seasons. Upon locating fruits or berries (tiny by the standards of modern day produce) our harvest of these perishable foods may have literally been a hand-to-mouth foraging experience.
Quantities of certain foods would have needed to have been harvested and preserved during short growing seasons by drying, salting, or fermenting.
Varied versions of the above lifestyle activities would have provided ample exercise for the hunter-gatherer.
There was no need to lift weights or run on the treadmill in the spare bedroom.
No need to drive to the gym.
The sedentary lives we are living today are unprecedented, except possibly by a very small “privileged” class of royalty from days gone by.
Physical lifestyle activities with a purpose
Our bodies adapt very, very slowly over time. So slow, that at the speed at which technology is changing our world we can for all practical purposes assume that genetically we do not adapt at all.
Replaced by technological and industrial conveniences, our major muscles are rapidly losing the purpose for which they were designed.
Sometimes we may need to “fool” our body into believing it has a purpose. A number of years ago I had a client with developmental disabilities that really needed exercise for her health, but who absolutely refused to move unnecessarily.
It wasn’t that she wasn’t able. Although she didn’t like to exercise she did like to go places. So as part of her recovery plan, we would park a little farther away from the places that we visited. That way we could work walking into her day without even thinking about it.
What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.
I habitually now park a little way off from my destinations, assuring myself that I get to stretch my legs a bit before settling into yet another sedentary lifestyle activity.
Carrying our groceries to the far end of the parking lot can be a little like carrying home the game taken in the hunt.
Sometimes, the need for frequent exercise needs to supersede the efficiency of technology.
Physical lifestyle activities in a natural environment
To wake the hunter-gatherer within us we need to get outside.
Not only is exercise outdoors more pleasurable, studies show that taking our exercise in an outdoor natural environment has measurable benefits.
In one study regular exercise, in a natural environment, cut the risk of suffering from poor mental health in half; woodlands and parks seemed to have the greatest effect. Viewing trees helps people become less stressed, further lowering inflammation.
An analysis of a large number of studies concludes that exercising in natural environments makes the exercise seem easier, makes it more likely that we will exercise again, reduces stress, restores the weary mind, lifts our mood, and makes us feel better.
Physical lifestyle activities with a partner or a party
Wolves hunt large game in packs.
Prior to the introduction of firearms around 600-years ago, hunter-gatherers hunted large game in parties.
Many still do.
Working together makes hunting and gathering less frightening and more rewarding.
Firewood to cook the game and to heat the home had to be gathered from the forest. Working alone could be discouraging or even dangerous.
(And we’d be more likely to fall asleep on the job when we were by ourselves.)
Working with a partner or a group would have been more motivating and enjoyable.
Pursuing our lifestyle exercises with a partner or a group can keep us in the game. In one study exercising in a group, as opposed to exercising alone, improved mental health by 12.6 percent, emotional health by 26 percent, and physical health by 24.8 percent.
Lifestyle Activities for the Hunter-Gatherer
Not into gathering firewood? Here are a few more ideas to pique the interest of your inner hunter-gatherer. (In my next article, I will consider lifestyle activities for the subsistence farmer.)
Walking or Running
These are the staples of most hunter-gatherer activities.
While many of the following activities may require a weekend or a holiday, we can more easily fit walking and running into our busy daily schedules.
The key to staying motivated is to exercise outdoors in a natural environment with a purpose and a partner.
Hunting and Fishing
I had to dive really deep to come up with this one.
I am personally not attracted to hunting and fishing as a sport. The joy of it escapes me. My dad loved to fish. While he fished I secretly dropped the worms overboard to free them from the hook — and to feed the fish — complicated decisions for a youngster.
However, the natural world is a world of predators and prey and I do not begrudge those who are drawn to hunting and fishing. I have witnessed how it draws families together for the hunt, often from far corners of the country. It’s in people’s blood. It reconnects people with nature on a visceral level. It may be the ultimate hunter-gatherer lifestyle activity.
When I was a kid I would make a bow and arrows from tree saplings. My adult daughter now has a sleek looking long-bow. Doing a little target practice with a longbow looks like a lot of fun.
Bird-watching and Plant and Animal Identification
Looking for that particular bird that is missing from your identification list can take you far afield. It requires a bit of the hunter’s skill as you search the landscape and stalk your quarry.
Keep a Nature Notebook
Phenology is the observation of plants and animals throughout the seasons. What is the date of the first dandelion bloom? (May 3rd, 2018, earlier than usual.)
When did you see the first robin of the year? (April 1st, 2018.)
Monarch butterflies? Where have they all gone?
There is a narrow sliver of land about a mile from our home that lies between a gravel road and the railroad. A handful of native prairie wildflowers have managed to escape the plow and the herbicides there. It’s a nice destination to walk to.
Sunday, June 1st, 2018
I walked to “the prairie.” The purple prairie clovers are in full bloom and plentiful, as are the brown-eyed Susans. Some sprays of familiar tiny white flowers were quite showy in the low light. The wild roses are past their prime. A bird I believe was a wren was singing.
On the walk back to town I could hear the water trickling into the concrete culvert under the railroad. A red-wing blackbird was making its distinctive call from a tall stem near its nest. The sun was setting behind the clouds that had been moving in, coloring them pastel pink and blue.
Flashes of distant lightning were reflecting on the pink clouds. The air was very humid but cool. As I approached town I began to hear the low rumble of the thunderstorm.
I’m home now and there was just a flash of lightning and a loud clap of thunder. The rain is pattering outside my window and I can hear it filling the blue bucket under the gutter spout.
Without taking note of the natural world around me, my walk would have been a boring experience; a repetitive chore; one necessary only to maintain my major muscles and to stave off depression.
With note-taking in mind, it became a pleasurable experience.
This goes right along with the last two ideas. A single lens reflex camera around your neck gives you license to wander deep into the woods and fields in search of that perfect photo.
Step it up a notch by buying a long lens and taking up wildlife photography.
I enjoyed these wild lilies I photographed on “the prairie” at the railroad, by displaying them on my desktop.
Photography and note-taking are lifestyle activities that allow all of us to be “takers” without depleting our natural resources.
Wild-crafting, also known as foraging, is gathering herbs, plants, and fungi from the wild. Blueberries, chokecherries, wild asparagus, and fungi are possibilities where we live.
Always check with local authorities or landowners for permission and be certain of your plant identification before eating.
(While herding sheep in the high desert I once got quite ill from eating what I thought was a wild onion.)
Shooting a few baskets, playing volleyball, or some tennis can develop some hunter-gatherer camaraderie and provide a fun way to move.
Rocks, flowers, leaves, ferns. Be sure your collections don’t negatively affect the enjoyment of the environment by others, know your local laws and always get permission on private land. In general, parks are off-limits to most collecting.
Wilderness Hiking, Paddling, and Camping
20 percent of the land in the US is in national parks. This land is your land! These waterways are your waterways. Go forth and discover.
If you are young, nimble, and more than a little bit crazy you might consider parkour as a lifestyle activity.
Parkour is the sport of moving quickly through an environment, using obstacles in your path for props to run, jump, climb and balance on. It is primarily an activity practiced in urban areas but sometimes moves into the more natural environments of parks.
It’s great if you are being chased by a wild rhinoceros.
I once clambered over a seven-foot corral in advance of a mean set of horns! You’d be surprised what your fit and healthy body can do when called upon.
When moving my daughter into her college dorm, my future son-in-law came vaulting through her second story window. I’m still not sure how he did that!
Parkour is a stimulating way to interact with your environment. After years of practice, I can now manage four or five steps in a row while balancing on a train rail. (Parkour is more suitable for some than for others.)
Those amazing photos and videos we see online belie the hours and hours of physical training and practice that go into parkour.
Be careful! Have fun! And get outdoors with hunter-gatherer lifestyle activities.
Read more about hunter-gatherer and subsistence farmer tendencies in this article:
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