22 October 2014

Primal Living part 1 - The blueprint to long-term and enjoyable health without trying very hard

What is Primal?

First of all it's not a diet. Where typical diets tend to focus on working to adhere to strict eating and exercise programs to achieve fitness goals, the Primal lifestyle reflects a complete transformation in how "being healthy" is thought of, understood and therefore, approached. Diets and training plans have always been funny to me as there's almost an inherent tone of being temporary. This piece is about living according to the Primal Blueprint and achieving long-term health and happiness.

Primal Living was developed by +Mark Sisson and is outlined in the original (but first of many) book on living primal, the Primal Blueprint (I bought ebook on Google Play). Primal living is built on the the idea that as humans we have the ability modify the capabilities of our genes and how they metabolism and process everything about our bodies (within reason). One of the many mantras is to turn yourself into a "fat burning beast" by training your genes to burn fat more efficiently and lose weight, look better and get healthier all with minimal effort. This may sound too good to be true, but it isn't. To say minimal effort doesn't mean there's a magic drug or food that does everything for you. We're actually talking about not having to spend 5 to 10 hours a killing yourself with workouts only to feel depleted.

Eating Primally

Like anything related to health the key principles of the Primal Blueprint revolves around food and exercise. However, the fascinating thing is how radical primal nutrition and exercise are compared to the traditional western diet.
This entire infographic which very simply outlines the primal principles can be found here 
This is the Primal Food Pyramid. While it may look similar to the one we all learned in school, emphasising diets rich complex carbohydrates and free of fat and cholesterol, it's almost entirely backwards. The key here is to eat as much fresh meat and vegetables as you like. Beef, pork, bacon, seafood and chicken (dark meat included) are all good. Couple good meat with colourful vegetables and that's most what primal Living is all about. The poisonous substances to avoid whenever possible are those that are high in carbohydrates whether natural or not, primarily the sugar, grains polyunsatured oils and beans or legumes our bodies are not meant to digest healthily or efficiently.

The most interesting thing for me is the positive note around fat. As long as I could remember, I've heard fat is the enemy and that it will lead to heart attacks and obesity. We grew up on skim milk and fat free margarine. "Eating fat will make you fat" seemed logical and was simple enough for most of us to understand.
Why are muffins and sugary cereals considered breakfast food? 
Without going into much of the complicated research behind everything (MarksDailyApple has all the education you could ever want and a very enthusiastic and welcoming online community), as far as food is concerned, these are the bullet points:

1. Your body needs protein and animal meats are the richest source there is
2. Healthy fats satiate you (keep you fuller longer), are the best source of sustained energy and are crucial for brain health (I strongly recommend Grain Brain by Dr David Perlmutter)
3. Carbohydrates cause spikes in insulin levels, inflammation and trigger hormonal responses making you feel more hungry. They do give you energy, but only in short bursts and if they aren't burnt off, get converted into fat anyway.

Primal Fitness

Here we have the pillars of the Primal workout. Much like the food pyramid, it's very unconventional. The most shocking, and slightly disheartening thing for me, is the absence of jogging. This isn't a coincidence. The Primal Blueprint actually advises against any exercise that is of medium intensity done for prolonged periods of time. As someone who does have a love for the 30-45 minute run, I'm not a fan, but am coming around to the principles. 

Basically, what we should do most often is move slowly - walking, cycling, hiking and any other form of light cardio that can be done as often as we have time for. The next step is for strength training a a couple of times a week where you "lift heavy things". Lastly, every week or so, do a few sprints, but cycling, skipping and swimming works as well. The key is to just move as fast as you can for 10-20 seconds and rest in between reps. For a brief snapshot of what I do in terms of fitness (with a detailed piece next week), this is a very brief breakdown:

1. As much as I can: Walk. The dog, to work (I live 1km away), around the block or around the house or yard. If I can make an excuse to "move frequently at a slow place" by parking further away from something or do an extra lap of the shops I will.
2. Every 2-3 days: A 15 minute session of pushups, squats and situps. No weights. For "lifting heavy things" I just use my body.
3. Once a week (or two): I jog down the street to a local soccer field and "sprint" half the length 6-10 times walking back each time, then jog back home.

This is basically it as far as dedicated "ok, time to exercise" time goes. Overall it probably adds up to no more than 2 hours a week. Granted, this is a bit low, but so is my personal bar. All I'm trying to do is maintain the weight, body shape and feelings of vitality I have now. If I was chasing personal bests, trying to slim down, or trying to bulk up, I'd be putting in a bit more than 2 hours a week.

Being healthy is 80% dependant on your health, so working out is really just a matter of giving your body a bit of time to move around and boost circulation and give the muscles the test they need to stay vital. I love playing basketball and I love running, so I do those whenever I the opportunity arises but we're talking once a month if that am I ever spending a sustained hour of dedicated exercise unless I am loving it. The days of pushing yourself beyond the point of enjoyment for hours on end are finished. 

Humans have survived for thousands of years before gyms, marathons, treadmills, breakfast cereal, bagels or spaghetti bologna is existed. For all of this time, the main killers were infectious diseases and predators. Now, science and technology has taken us to a point where most diseases and almost all predators aren't things we have to worry about in the cushy western world in which we live. But with all of these advances, why are obesity, diabetes, cancer, alzheimer's becoming more prevalent every day? For the last 40 years we've been told it's because we're eating too much fat and not enough complex carbohydrates. Fat free, high carb food is everywhere, so why aren't we getting healthier?

Next week, I will go into the (very basic) background of the Primal analogy built around the idea of "ancestral health". I'll also try to finish with a very simple, yet accurate recount of a how my daily life follows and what Primal living means for me. If you're interested in reading more about the benefits of living the Primal lifestyle,  head over to MarksDailyApple.Com.