9 Steps to Perfect Health - #7: Move like Your Ancestors | Chris Kresser

9 Steps to Perfect Health – #7: Move like Your Ancestors

by Chris Kresser

Last updated on

iStock.com/EmirMemedovski

This content has been updated and is now available as part of a free eBook.

Download the free eBook here


There’s no question that regular exercise is essential to health. Our paleolithic ancestors had a different word for exercise: life. For the vast majority of our evolutionary history, humans had to exert ourselves – often quite strenuously – to get food. We naturally spent a lot of time outdoors in the sun, walking, hunting, gathering, and performing various other physically-oriented tasks. We had no concept of this as “exercise” or “working out”. It was just life.

Things are different today. 60% of American adults are not regularly active, and 25% are complete couch potatoes – they get no exercise at all, other than walking back and forth between the car, the cubicle and the refrigerator. This lack of physical activity has profound consequences.

Regular movement protects us from disease in several ways, but most importantly it prevents oxidative damage and inflammation – the primary mechanisms underlying most modern, degenerative diseases.

This explains why those who are completely sedentary have between 1.5 and 2.5 times the risk of developing heart disease and a higher risk for virtually all modern, degenerative disease.

On the other hand, we’ve got the exercise fanatics. Many Americans have been caught up in the fitness craze over the last 40 years, devoting countless hours to jogging, the Stairmaster or the treadmill in the hopes of slimming down, getting healthy and preventing disease. But while this type of activity may help with stress management, research suggests that it’s useless for weight loss and may in fact be detrimental to health.

If you doubt this, you’ll have to explain why Americans have continually gained weight over the last 40 years, in spite of increased leisure time exercise and increased energy expenditure.

Why “cardio” doesn’t work for weight loss

When I say “cardio”, I’m referring to steady-state, repetitive activity done at a moderate intensity like jogging outdoors, running on a treadmill or climbing the Stairmaster. [Side note: the idea that you have to perform this type of activity to benefit your heart and vascular system is false. Anything that places a demand on the muscles – including so-called anaerobic activities like weightlifting – will also condition the heart and vascular system.]

Most people are surprised to learn that cardio doesn’t work for weight loss. How could this be? There are three main reasons:

  • caloric burn during exercise is generally small;
  • people who exercise more also tend to eat more (which negates the weight regulating effect of exercise); and,
  • increasing specific periods of exercise may cause people to become more sedentary otherwise.

In an example of the first reason, a study following women over a one-year period found that in order to lose one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of fat, they had to exercise for an average of 77 hours. That’s a lot of time on the treadmill just to lose 2 pounds!

In an example of the second reason, a study found that people who exercise tend to eat more afterwards, and that they tend to crave high-calorie foods. The title of this study says it all: “Acute compensatory eating following exercise is associated with implicit hedonic wanting for food.” I love it when researchers have a sense of humor.

In an example of the third reason, one study assigned 34 overweight and obese women to an exercise program for 8 weeks. Fat loss at the end of the study was an average of 0.0kg. Not very impressive. But the researchers noticed that some women did lose weight, while others actually gained. What was the difference? In the women that didn’t lose weight, the increase in specific periods of exercise corresponded with a decrease in overall energy expenditure. Translation: they were more likely to be couch potatoes when they weren’t exercising, which negated the calorie-burning effect of their workouts.

If you’re still not convinced, the Cochrane group did a review of 43 individual studies on exercise for weight loss. Study length ranged from 3 to 12 months, and exercise sessions lasted on average 45 minutes with a frequency of 3-5 times per week. The results? On average, the additional weight loss from exercise averaged about 1 kg (2.2 pounds). Meh. Assuming they worked out for 45 minutes 4x/wk over 6 months, that means they had to exercise 69 hours to lose that 1 kg.

Why cardio may be harmful

Too much cardio exercise has a number of harmful effects on the body:

  • increases oxidative damage
  • increases inflammation (the root of all disease)
  • depresses the immune system
  • decreases fat metabolism
  • disrupts cortisol levels
  • causes neurodegeneration

Overtraining is especially damaging because of its effects on cortisol. We discussed cortisol at length in Step 6: Manage Your Stress, but in this context what’s important to understand is that too much exercise can disrupt our natural cortisol rhythm and drive levels too high initially, and depress them over time. Cortisol dysregulation promotes abdominal fat gain and muscle loss, which in turn causes further weight gain.

There’s also some evidence that frequent endurance exercise may promote – rather than prevent – heart disease. Dr. Kurt Harris summarized a study performed on 102 active marathon runners and 102 age-matched controls to determine the effect of aerobic exercise on cardiovascular health.

The marathoners were between 50 and 72 years of age, and they ran an average of 35 miles per week. They had no known history of heart disease or diabetes. The control group was similarly aged and also had no history of cardiovascular or metabolic disease.

You might be surprised to learn that the marathon runners were three times more likely to have heart damage than the non-runners. Among the runners, there were 12 heart attacks vs. 4 attacks in the non-runners.

In another study by the same authors, the more marathoners ran, the higher their likelihood of heart disease. In fact, the number of marathons ran was an independent predictor of the likelihood of irreversible damage to the heart tissue.

No cardio? Then what should we do instead?

In short, we should move like our ancestors. They didn’t strap on a heart monitor and take off for a 45-minute jog, nor did they go down and swim laps for an hour in the local lake. Yet they were extremely fit and almost entirely free of the modern diseases that plague us today.

They performed low-intensity movements like walking, gathering foods or working in other capacities on a regular basis. These periods of low-intensity activity were punctuated by brief periods of much higher-intensity activity – such as going on a hunt, running for a predator or fighting for survival.

This is the type of movement our bodies are adapted for, and thus this is what we should aim for in our daily lives. But how do we do that? As Mark Sisson suggests, we should:

  1. Move frequently at a slow pace
  2. Lift heavy things and sprint occasionally

Move frequently at a slow pace

Moving frequently at a slow pace means approximately 3-5 hours a week of low level activity like walking, cycling, gardening, hiking, performing manual labor, etc. This mimics our ancestral pattern of movement, helps maintain a healthy weight, promotes proper metabolic function and provides a foundation for more strenuous activity. Another benefit of this type of activity is that it’s often performed outdoors.

Spending time outdoors reduces stress, increases vitamin D levels, and brings us pleasure, joy and a sense of connection with the world around us.

I think one of the best ways to do this type of movement is to integrate it into your daily life. This could include commuting to work and doing errands on foot or by bicycle, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, doing your own gardening and yard work, etc.

Lift heavy things and sprint occasionally

In contrast to cardio, this type of exercise involves performing movements at very high intensity for short periods of time – usually between 30 seconds and 2 minutes. This is sometimes referred to as high intensity interval training (HIIT).

Several studies have been done comparing HIIT to low-intensity, steady-state (“chronic cardio”, as Mark Sisson calls it) exercise, and HIIT has been shown to be superior in nearly every meaningful marker.

In this study, one group was assigned to “chronic cardio”, while the other was assigned to intervals of 8-second sprints. After 15 weeks, the researchers concluded:

Both exercise groups demonstrated a significant improvement (P less than 0.05) in cardiovascular fitness. However, only the HIIE group had a significant reduction in total body mass (TBM), fat mass (FM), trunk fat and fasting plasma insulin levels.

A pair of studies done at McMaster University found that “6-minutes of pure, hard exercise once a week could be just as effective as an hour of daily moderate activity“, according to the June 6, 2005 CNN article reporting on the study.

The study itself was published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, and it revealed that HIIT resulted in unique changes in skeletal muscle and endurance capacity that were previously believed to require hours of exercise each week.

A follow-up study confirmed the results. Despite the fact that the more conventional endurance exercise group spent 97.5 percent more time engaged in exercise, both groups of subjects improved to the same degree. The group that exercised 97.5 percent more received no additional benefit whatsoever from doing so. Considering the wear-and-tear and increased risk of injury associated with that much more exercise, there’s absolutely no point to doing “chronic cardio” when you can receive the same benefits with a fraction of the time and risk by doing HIIT.

The Cochrane study I linked to earlier in the article also found that high-intensity exercise was superior to “chronic cardio”. In particular, the researchers found that high-intensity exercise led to a greater decrease in fasting blood glucose levels than low-intensity exercise.

Why high-intensity exercise is better

bbsIn his excellent book on high-intensity strength training, Body By Science, Dr. Doug McGuff explains that high-intensity training is superior to chronic cardio because it produces a greater stimulus and thus more effectively empties the muscles and liver of glucose. This stimulus can last several days with HIIT, as opposed to just a few hours with low-intensity training.

HIIT also activates hormone-sensitive lipase (HSL), which mobilizes fatty acids for energy use. This means that during HIIT, both glucose and fatty acids will be burned, leading to greater fat loss and restoration of insulin sensitivity.

High-intensity strength training: best of all?

Both high-intensity running or bicycling sprints and high-intensity strength training are effective. But I believe high-intensity strength training is probably a better choice for most, simply because the wear-and-tear and risk of injury is lower – especially if the strength-training is performed using weight machines as described in Body By Science.

This is, in fact, the method of training I’ve been doing since April of last year. I admit I was somewhat skeptical about it all before I read Body By Science. But the research and the physiology was convincing, so I decided to give it a try.

The results have been incredible. My workout varies in length between 5 and 9 minutes a week. That’s right, I said minutes. With only a few exceptions, I’ve increased the amount of weight I can lift, the time I can lift it, or both, with each successive workout. My strength has increased and my physique is, if anything, better than it was when I was lifting 3x/week for much longer periods.

Where to learn more about HIIT

There are many books on the subject, but these are the two I’d recommend for most people:

  • Body By Science, by Doug McGuff. The “bible” on high-intensity strength training. Goes into great detail on the physiological mechanisms and benefits behind this type of exercise, and explains how to put together a routine. Doug also has a great blog with an active community of people using the BBS approach. To see an example of what this type of workout looks like, check out this video on YouTube. For an in-depth video presentation about BBS, watch this video.
  • The Power of 10: The Once-A-Week Slow Motion Fitness Revolution, by Adam Zickerman & Bill Schilley. This is more of a nuts-and-bolts book, with less theory than BBS and more focus on teaching you how to do this type of workout. It also has specific routines that can be performed at home, on the road and without access to a gym. The approach is slightly different than what’s advocated in BBS, but the basic idea is the same.
  1. Not sure I agree with the whole idea of long distance running being completely bad for you, but I definitely feel and notice the benefits in HIIT training much more than I do long distance training. This includes energy, mood, etc.

  2. I found it interesting that the name of Mike Mentzer has not been brought up by any HIT advocates. Little and Mcguff, I believe were friends with him, if not disciples. He was after all the “father” of HIT,going back to the 70’s. Never before in bodybuilding annals had anyone proposed reducing training time while increasing intensity. Mike of course was a world class bodybuilder and went on to have students including the multi Olympia winner, Dorian Yates. Heavy Duty is a must read as a basis of HIT. Many years ago, Mentzer wrote about individuals dramatically increasing muscle mass and cardiovascular performance by training only briefly 2 – 3 times a week. As he became more progressive in working with clients, Mike went to the extreme, that, based on some individuals could not tolerate HIT more than once each 10 -14 days. The debate has always raged, but until his untimely death, Mentzer claimed that HIT was the only scientific and logical method of training.
    If Mentzer was the father, Arthur Jones was the grandfather, that however is another story.

    • Yes, Mike Mentzer had the most logical argument about strength training ant it really worked: You can be stronger every set of every workout. If you don’t achieve that, you are over-training. The principles were so clear.

  3. Actually our ancestors were long distance runners. Look at aborigines and africans. Also, I’ve never seen a fat long distance runner.

    • Exactly! That’s where the article kind of lost me. Anyone who actually knows how our ancestors hunted would know that for much of human history and almost all of human evolution revolved around long distance endurance running. I have started running at a steady pace for an hour a day and have seen wonderful results in my energy, waste size and overall health. Studies are not always reliable. Factors are often left out.

  4. Id just figured this out on my own today! I remembered that all throughout highschool I was healthy and fit. I did whatever came natural to me and didnt follow diets or workouts. Well what came naturally to me back then was to eat when hungry, not worrying much about calories and fat. I did alot of low intensity dance class and walking everywhere, with sprints of running thrown in a few times a day. Mostly outside. And some dumbbells, crunches, etc. Thats it. Fast forward to 30 and ive been doing the “chronic cardio” gym thing and its not working. Plus id rather be outside walking in different parks. Im going to go back to my highschool method and see how it goes!

  5. So your saying the my extremely skinny best friend has been doin normal every day things and not workin out, while I’ve been working my ass off running two miles a day, and she gets to still be skinny while I suffer with no weight loss?

  6. hi Chris, I’d recommend having a look at what MovNat does. Their approach and that of other physical educators who looked back at more practical and natural training methods has done huge things to change the way we train our endurance athletes but not by the exact methods recommended by McGuff.

    McGuff’s books is excellent but it lacks certain layers that I think you’ll find in MovNat. More than any other player in the fitness industry they have a true experiential competency in what natural movement actually means and how it is executed. Unsurprisingly there is not a gym necessary nor a bench-press in sight.

  7. Chris, I know it’s been a while since you wrote this, but what do you think about sprinting or another high intensity, high impact activity like full court indoor basketball if someone has arthritis? If you know of anyone who can answer this, or if you can, it would be greatly appreciated.

  8. I began following Doug Mcguff’s high intensity weight training recommendations after watching a utube video lecture that I stumbled across serendipitously one day. I have done an aproximate “Big 5” (after which I play a little racquetball) to failure within 12 minutes between once a week and 2 weeks since May of this year. As a middle aged woman who had been athletic when young I was surprised at how much strength I had lost when I first began this very spare and focused routine. I could only bench press 90 lb.s and overhead 40 lb.s! When young I could bench press over 150 lb.s without working out..so I could lift my weight basically. Now, 6 months later, I’m benching 130 lb.s 5 times and overheading 70 lb.s 10 times! I don’t do leg presses because I have a hurt right knee. But, the most amazing thing is that although I didn’t change my basically good diet I have lost 16 lb.s! I don’t keep a scale around but when I saw my doctor yesterday she informed me of the sixteen pound weight loss.

    I can hardly believe that exercising as infrequently and briefly, albeit very intensely, as I do I have still made so much progress and even lost a significant amount of weight. I know it makes sense in theory but I just can’t take in the reality of it yet :)! I have to repeat that I took Doug Mcguff’s words to heart and lift weight carefully yet ferociously! I work really hard when I sit down to do bench presses, overheads, pulldowns and 2 different rows. I remember that Doug stated that the body needs to interpret the workout as “threatful” and even frightening. Well, this high intensity approach has worked in real life! My blood pressure is down and I just feel a lot more viable everyday. I understand that my body is making concrete repairs and improvements when I’m resting in between workouts. I only exercise (frisbee or dancing in the kitchen:)) when I feel like it. I have more respect for my body after taking in the principles of Body By Science, which I bought after viewing the lectures. Thanks to all those exercise/sports researchers who questioned conventional “wisdom”! My gratitude to Doug Mcguff and John Little!

  9. Perfect common sense information. Get off the treadmill folks, and just move your body! I also have found the Tracy Anderson Method very satisfying as a form of excercise. Use your own body weight against itself, lots of reps, dance, and just have fun!

  10. Blake/Mike/Wow… and several others on here who believe that Chris is somehow contributing to the obesity epidemic in America by “preaching laziness” and “criticizing them for working out”, you all need to learn how to read through content and train your brain to actually think rationally and at least partially intelligently about it’s message before horking your guts out onto your computer screen so you can feel cool on the internet.

    Where’s your website Mike? And why do you bother addressing Chris as “Mr. Kresser”. After reading your comments, I had to go shower to wash it all off.

    Cmon people. Grow up, seriously.

  11. Chris – I think you should consider following KGH’s lead and turn off reader comments. Even if this penalizes those of us who are aligned with you, so be it, if it spares us from the moronic responses above.

    And to you running addicts that are trashing Chris, you might be lean, you might be fit, and you may not have had your comeuppance…yet. Your n=1 experiment doesn’t prove jack. I am 5’11”, 170 lbs and 8% body fat and lost 25 lbs following PaNu without any exercise. My n=1 experiment doesn’t prove jack either. Read Good Calories Bad Calories perhaps in spite of the polysyllabic words and apparently abstruse logic.

  12. Nice differentiation of the issues that we all sort of made out of this article Matt. Good work. Some might disagree with your summary, but I like it!

  13. This discussion has sort of morphed into three simultaneous topics being discussed at the same time.

    A. Whether high volume/low intensity cadio is a good way to lose weight

    B. Whether high volume/low intensity cardio training is healthy

    C. Whether high volume cardio/low intensity training is necessary for an endurance athlete

    The answer to A. is that it isn’t. People think it is because they subscribe to the calorie balance model. If you want to burn the most calories then high volume/low-intensity cardio does this the best. But we know that the calorie balance model is completely broken. You have to manage the hormones. High volume cardio fails in this regard.

    And B is related to A. High volume cardio is catabolic (muscle wasting) and pro-inflammatory – not good in the hormone department. I’m sure there is a group of people out there who can thrive on it, but for the general population it is ineffective in terms of training economy and results. Is it better than nothing? Sure. But for the great majority of the population, weight training is superior. It’s scalable, functional, variable, and effective in short amounts of time 2-3 times per week.

    C is a whole different subject. If you are an endurance athlete should you do high volume cardio? Absolutely. But this has nothing to do with health. Competitive athletes are interested in winning, not in being healthy. I advocate weight lifting for health, but I readily admit that power lifters can be some of the most unhealthy “athletes” there are. What I recommend and what they do diverge as the level of competition rises. My suspicion is that a lot of endurance athletes do way too much long and slow training, but they have to do some for sure.

    Any kind of high volume training is bad for health really – intervals (CrossFit) or even weight lifting. It’s just that cardio seems to be abused more than others for no good reason.

  14. Joe Bloe – guess you actually believe Calories In / Calories Out is the “cause” of weight loss? Maybe you should read Good Calories Bad Calories.

    Truth – your name is irony at its finest. Thanks for the “insightful” comment.

    • This article is pathetic. I run over 100 miles a week and I have considerably more energy when I’m in high training than when I’m not. Additionally high volume training absolutely works for weight loss. I eat everything I want all the time and I maintain 5% body fat. Before I became a runner, I was about 20% body fat, no matter what I ate. When I contracted mono and had to take off 4 months, I gained 20 pounds despite restricting myself to a “normal” 2500 calorie diet. I started running again and voila, everything returned to normal faster than it was put on. I have much better energy levels when I exercise and my health is absolutely great. I’ve had one injury in 8 years of running and beyond the mono, I haven’t had anything beyond a normal common cold. The average American is a fat pathetic loser. The human body is designed for endurance, more than almost any other creature, and anyone that claims otherwise as an excuse to not exercise is just another fat pathetic loser.

      • No offense, but you seem like a jerk. I personally believe that weight training is better for people than endurance exercise (and takes less time), but I don’t intend to condemn people that choose a different lifestyle than my own. Guess I can’t say the same for you. Oh, and I also have 5% body fat, and I never run endurance.

        • This is more of a bash of the article than people who do exercise other than running. Even as a runner (50-70 mpw), I realize it can be monotonous and that not everyone actually enjoys it like I do. I’ve come to accept that. But this article makes it sound like if you run a lot, you could drop dead at any moment! First…

          http://www.runtheplanet.com/resources/historical/runevolve.asp

          Our ancestors came out of the trees and started walking upright so they could run! And run a lot.

          Any runner will also tell you that the more they run, the slower their heart rate becomes. That is because a cardiovascular activity like running STRENGTHENS THE HEART. It does it in the same way that bench pressing will strengthen your pectoral muscles. You stress the muscle (heart) by keeping it an elevated rate for an extended peariod of time, then you rest it for how ever many hours you take between runs, or other activity. During this time it rebuilds any torn fibers, etc. and becomes slightly stronger each time. When your heart becomes stronger, it can move a higher volume of blood with each stroke. Because of this, the heart does not need to beat as fast to get the required amount of blood to the rest of the body. In a way, when your heart beats less, you are putting less mileage on your heart. It is basically the same as a car engine. Which one is more likely to fail, the one with 200,000 miles (beats), or the one with 150,000 miles (beats)? That’s a good start…

  15. Running promotes stronger bones, stronger cardio vascular system, increases muscle and burns fat. But you have to run MORE than 30min before fat burning occurs, 90min before fat is the primary source of fuel. To lose weight, you have to increase exercise (whatever it is) and keep calorie consumption the same or decrease. In other words: Calories consumed minus calories burned must be consistently negative to lose weight. It is not rocket science, but neither is this pseudo science article.

    Americans want a get rich quick or lose weight without working out scheme. Thanks for pretending to give it to them

  16. Chris,

    This whole cardio v weights debate is akin to “Paleo” only and “LowCarb” diets only. There are several variations of each which work and they are not blanket recommendations that apply to every single individual.

    I work with elite endurance athletes – Tour de France riders, World Class Triathletes, Marathon Runners etc. I can tell you they are 1. not overweight 2. not dying from heart disease. Their bodyfat is typically 5-8%, they train up tp 25 – 30hrs per week, and blood profiles will typically show low inflammatory markers and normal immune markers. There are of course other factors that determine this such as nutrition obviously, recovery, periodization, genotype, inclusion of resistance/anaerobic training phases etc.

    There are umteen studies on how endurance exercise improves insulin sesitivity, upregulates lypolysis, decreases cholestrol, strengthens immunity, the list goes on. There are studies that show that endurance exercise can prevent telomere shortening and thus prolong aging… Tarnopolsky recently published a study on this.

    I find those that “dis” the whole idea of cardio exercise are those that have never actually experienced it and practiced it. I do agree, in terms of recommending forms of exercise to sedentary or obese people, that resistance/HIIT training is superior. However, simply blanketing everyone with the same brush, in a simliar way to nutrition recommendations, is just wrong.

    Finally, for some good old “anectodotal” evidence… surely cardio exercise can’t be too bad if you want to look like this 😉 http://www.ultramarathonman.com/flash/

    • Barry,

      I read Chris’ article again and I fail to find him mentioning weights (though he did use the phrase “weight machine”). It seems to me he wrote the article about interval training as a method to lose weight, and mentioned it was better than cardio exercises for that purpose. He did mention machines though, and that started a lot of reader comments about machines vs free weights. And since he compared interval training to cardio, he got some comments defensive of cardio training.

      So I have more or less been ignoring comments that are comparing methods of stressing the muscles (free weights vs machines), as I am mostly interested in the technique that Sisson calls high intensity interval training (HIIT), since it is claimed to be superior to traditional cardio exercise “in almost every way”.

      Have you investigated HIIT with respect to training elite endurance athletes? From what I’ve read, HIIT is supposed to increase endurance in far less time than pure cardio exercise, and therefore be an advantage in endurance training, so I’m wondering what you find wrong with HIIT. Since, in your post you were defensive of cardio, but didn’t compare it with HIIT in that defense, I now have the idea that you haven’t investigated the benefits of HIIT. Here’s a reference I would like your comments on:
      http://www.letsrun.com/forum/flat_read.php?thread=3784072
      If you read this short link, and then the other Mercola link within, it definitely gives the idea that not only is that particular method of interval training great at inducing weight loss and increasing cardiovascular health, but it gives superior endurance to what one can gain from pure cardio exercise alone, and in less time. I would appreciate it if you will comment on this as an endurance expert, and please include any experience you may also have in using HIIT to train your clients.

      • Glenn

        I understand Chris is not simplying saying “do weights, not cardio”, but its essentially what the article alludes to. This is the general theme amongst most of the current top practicioners in this community.. Mark Scisson, Rob Wolff etc. I’ve read all the books and articles.

        Of course we have investigated HIIT and use it extensively during different training phases. And yes, we are well aware of the studies showing improved training adapations in terms of anaerobic v aerobic training. There are several good papers that have shown improved gene expression, AMPK pathways etc with HIIT over aerobic exercise. However, there are many other factors that need to be taken into account in terms of optimising endurance capacity… cardiac hypertrophy, Type 1 synthesis, cappillarization, oxygen delivery, … factors which are improved with endurance training. Not only that, but excessive HIIT training is damaging and is simply counter productive. Physiologically its not optimal, if it was, then we wouldn’t have Tour de France cyclists doing 5-6hr rides or Marathon runners doing 2-3hr runs.

        I understand this discussion is not related to elite endurance athletes. However, the principles underlying the “cardio v HIIT/weights” debate still do apply. Leaving aside the pro athletes, just take a look at those that compete at the various events such as any Ironman, Cyling or Ultra Distance running events around the globe. There are literally millions of healthy, fit, lean individuals that use endurance exercise as there main form of training.

        So I agree that HIIT is beneficial. I also agree and stated in my first comment, it is a more effective form of exercise for the obese/sedentary. Like all health, nutrition and exercise debates… its all about context and its all about taking into account several factors. That said, writing off endurance exercise as some form of heart disease causing, health damaging form of exercise is a little naive in my opinion.

        • Thanks Barry – a very informative reply and what I had hoped for, as I couldn’t imagine someone working with world class athletes not exploring HIIT and determining its strengths and weaknesses!

          So it seems that if one tried to push for either endurance OR HIIT to the exclusion of the other, especially as regards, say, endurance athletes, it would not make sense, as, to varying degrees they both are beneficial. I feel resolved about that issue now, thanks to you.

          So the issue possibly is only, should cardio need to be totally excluded (to protect our heart, etc.?) if one undertakes a HIIT program. Maybe that is what Chris implied. But he didn’t say that explicitly. He just said it doesn’t work for weight loss, and gave 3 reasons. Personally, I’d rather take the moderate approach and assume a person can exercise however they wish, including cardio, even if their main goal is weight loss and maintenance of muscle, with minimal destruction or aging. But they should consider Chris’ point that they won’t effect weight loss from the cardio exercise they do. For me, that is the important issue. Also, as Chris says, “The effects of overtraining are real, and documented in the scientific literature.” He said this regarding CF, but I’m wondering if it isn’t also a concern when a non-athlete, interested only in weight loss, decides between cardio and HIIT programs. It seems that the briefer hours alone would tend to protect a novice from many of the dangers lurking in cardio exercise. Do you have any guidelines along this line? I appreciate your help.

          • Glenn

            it’s simple. Do a bit of both.

            doing “cardio” a couple of days a week will not cause you any of the so called “health risks”… combine it with some HIIT and you get the best of both worlds

  17. As a triathlete, i’m very aware of the excessive oxidative stress and inflammation training can cause so before i train i make sure that i take a pretty complete bio shake (raw egg whites, pro-biotic kefir, blueberry, strawberry, blackberry, raspberry, cherries, coconut oil, 100% cocoa, DMAE powder and cinnamon) and immediately after training i take a cold shower to rapidly reduce my body temperature, take a baby aspirin and drink a potent green tea.
    it seems to work pretty well

    any comments or anything to add to this?

  18. Thanks for the response. I’m sure it’s not the first (or last) time you’ll get in trouble for an opinion. That’s why I like your blog!

  19. I’ll probably get myself in trouble with the CF crowd here, but I don’t think that kind of training (high intensity workouts several days in a row) is beneficial over the long-term – and in fact is harmful. I have several CF folks as patients right now that have trashed their adrenals (and thus the rest of their body) by overtraining. The effects of overtraining are real, and documented in the scientific literature.

  20. Dr Harris
    What think about chronic high intensity training, ala Crossfit. I am totally onboard with your assessment re: cardio, but Crossfit for health seems equally dubious. Is Crossfit great for performance – no doubt it is. For optimal health – I don’t think so. Don’t get me wrong, I have learned a lot from the Crossfit stuff and have a lot of respect for it (even if this post suggests otherwise), but 3 consecutive days of unbelievably intense workouts seems like taking mega doses of resveratrol and fish oil.

    What say you?

  21. Dr, Harris, re: “J Appl Physiol (February 17, 2011). doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.01280.2010

    Lifelong elite endurance athletes matched with non-runners and young endurance athletes.”

    To quote the NY Times, “…But even so, the study can’t directly prove that the older athletes’ excruciatingly heavy training loads and decades of elite-level racing caused heart scarring, only that the two were associated with each another.”

    “What does it take to convince you endurance running addicts, anyway? Where is your skepticism?”

    How about something better than a study that shows a simple association? Skeptics aren’t supposed to believe studies like this. Correlation is not causation. I think a little skepticism on your own part is in order.

    And I’m not an “endurance running addict”.

  22. One final word on machines versus free weights. Machines will help anyone who is detrained as any stimulus to a detrained person will generate a physiological adaption response for a while. But you’ll hit a ceiling fairly rapidly with machines where future adaptation virtually stops. Others in the posts are correct in that machines forces your body through it’s designed range of motion versus your body’s natural range of motion which can/will cause issues. Machines are also limiting as noted elsewhere in that they limit critical elements of secondary muscle involvement in the movements.

    Your core workout should consist of FULL BODY movements as noted in the post above. The more muscle you can involve an exercise the better thus the full depth squat is the king of exercises. Every muscle in your body is involved in the squat. For those who are obsessed with strong ‘cores’, you can’t handle heavy weight in the squat, dead lift or standing shoulder press without a strong ‘core’…try it. Standing exercises such as squat, dead lift and shoulder press are also great for increasing balance and full head to toe neurological development.

    About the only thing machines are good for is that it doesn’t take much instruction or technique development to use them. But that should not be used as anyone’s excuse. Read some books, watch some video, find a knowledgeable person and learn the basic lifts.

  23. I’ve worked out a ton over the years using machines and free weights mostly using some sort of bodybuilding isolation type of exercises and running. After reading Starting Strength and dabbling in Cross Fit, I am all in on free weights as your core lifts program. I totally agree with the high intensity shorter duration versus long and slow from my experience. Everyone that doesn’t suffer from an injury or some other medical reason should learn how to do a full below parallel squat with proper technique, deadlift, bench press, standing shoulder press, and eventually pull-ups/chin-ups. Mix in some 400 meter sprints, burpees, thrusters and kettle ball/dumb bell swings and you’ve got a variety of exercises that will totally transform anyone.

    The other key is consistency. Workout, eat well and sleep consistently over weeks, months, years. Keep a simple log of your eating, sleeping and workouts – exercise, weights and reps. Don’t worry about the scale, use your eyeball and your workout log as evidence of improvement. Adding muscle is key to improved fitness including you ladies.

  24. Your article series is great! Thanks Chris.

    You wrote that we should move like our ancestors. It is easy to agree with you. I think that our ancestors did hunt when they were hungry and there was a physiological need for food.

    What do you think Chris could there be additional benefit if we also moved when our ancestors did?

    I ask this because it’s been bothering me why caloric restriction increases energy comsumption through mitochondrial biogenesis and upregulation of oxidative metabolism of glucose and fatty acids. One might think that lower calories should decrease energy consumption by downregulating metabolism. There has to be some evolutionally important benefit to increase metabolism when you became hungry. If you have to sprint or fight for food this could make sense.

  25. I didn’t mean to imply that doing machine based training is worse than doing nothing. But at the same time you’d be selling yourself short. Your gains will stall out pretty early and then it’s just a grind to maintain the modest progress you’ve made. Compound barbell movements are harder skills to acquire, but they remain challenging over the long haul.

    In my own experience I could never maintain interest in weight training on machines. It just sucked the life out of me. Barbell training, on the other hand, is fun. Maybe I’m weird, but I have a whole slew of people training with me – running the gamut from a policeman and ex-triathelete to a school psychologist and IT manager. It just feels awesome to be strong.

    Certainly, you can do stuff around the house and yard in a fashion that improves your strength and fitness. But you have to be consistent. Going nuts one weekend a month is not going to have long term benefits. I, like a lot of people, sit on my butt all day. There aren’t a lot of opportunities to use my strength except to change the water bottle at the water station every two weeks or so. I only spend 3-4 hours a weeks training and that is more than enough for me not only to maintain my strength, but continue to build it.

    The other problem with “random” training is that you don’t know if it’s working or not. There has to be some consistency some of the time if you are going to measure it. We can measure our diet success with body fat, weight, blood, etc. If you add weight to the barbell you know you’ve become stronger. If you do a benchmark workout in less time you know you’ve become fitter. If you do twenty dissimilar tasks in different time and weight domains then you don’t know anything.

    Finally, the basic barbell movements, the squat, deadlift, and press, are like movement 101. If you can’t do them (and most people can’t without being coached and practicing them) then you are unqualified for more complex activities. You don’t know how to use your body safely. This is part of the reason why there are so many injuries in CrossFit. Beginners are tossed into the deep end of the pool to sink or swim without having the basic capacity to do the movements. Every toddler can squat instinctively. But we lose this ability as we get older – mostly from sitting all the time. Unfortunately machines do little to correct this – just more sitting and lying down.

    And to bring this full circle: yes, machines are better than being sedentary, but if we’re talking about “perfect” health then they are woefully inadequate. If you ever look at pictures of primitive people you’ll notice that not only are they lean, but they are also “jacked”. A healthy man about 5′ 10″ should be a fairly lean 185 pounds. Most people walking around today are 20-30 pounds short in the lean mass department. If you put a sedentary person on a barbell program they will put that lean weight on shockingly fast (like 6 months) because the hormones are being stimulated with functional stress. Machines are more like industrial age factory work and are not biologically compatible either physically nor mentally.

    If you’re still reading then thanks!

    Matt

    • You said: The other problem with “random” training is that you don’t know if it’s working or not. There has to be some consistency some of the time if you are going to measure it.

      I don’t think Cro-magnon from a couple caves down had a tightly regimented exercise schedule or used his handy bonobo humerus too frequently to measure his quads, so wouldn’t it be fair to say that this approach you are pushing here is likely also a direct violation of the thesis of “move like your ancestors” as you aptly quoted in your earlier post? Despite the good points you mention, is it plausible that not everyone is like you or needs to be like you?

  26. Nice article Chris! I have been following a HIIT regiment combined with power lifting (Starting Strength) for years and never felt better. Nice to have a couple of links to reports that back up what I’ve experienced first hand. Have you ever tried any MovNat training? I think that looks really fun/cool too, and capitalizes on being outdoors (not that you can’t train intervals outdoors). Also, you mention only lifting 5-9 minutes a week on weight machines – I’m curious as to what movements you do? In my experience, multi-joint, functional movements are the “safest” for balancing muscles and avoiding injury, so I was wondering if you find yourself doing many isometric exercises and if you feel it has had any benefit for you?

    Sorry for all the random questions. Thanks!
    -Matt

  27. “In another study by the same authors, the more marathoners ran, the higher their likelihood of heart disease. In fact, the number of marathons ran was an independent predictor of the likelihood of irreversible damage to the heart tissue.” Misleading and flat-out wrong. Read the study. No cause-and-effect was studied, yet you’re trying to project one. More of the runners smoked than the control group. Many of the runners didn’t start running until they were middle-aged. On and on…read the discussion section. You undermine your whole argument making such leaps. What they do say is that IF the runner already had coronary artery calcification, running isn’t going to decrease his risk of a heart attack.

    • Lots of people have coronary artery calcification, though. And whose health insurance is going to put up with everybody who wants to run, having artery imaging done?

      • OK, let me be more clear. The statement that “the more marathoners ran, the higher their likelihood of heart disease” is not backed up by the referenced article.

          • Try this one, then

            J Appl Physiol (February 17, 2011). doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.01280.2010

            Lifelong elite endurance athletes matched with non-runners and young endurance athletes.

            Cardiac fibrosis – permanent damage – directly correlates with cumulative endurance exercise.

            That makes three studies showing the same thing. Not just no reduced risk if you run excessively, but more permanent potentially arrythmogenic cardiac scarring.

            What does it take to convince you endurance running addicts, anyway? Where is your skepticism?

  28. > You might be surprised to learn that the marathon runners were three times more likely to have heart damage than the non-runners. Among the runners, there were 12 heart attacks vs. 4 attacks in the non-runners. <
    There are different reasons for "heart attacks" and to lump them all into such a statement is misleading.
    Most heart attacks are caused in the 'healing crisis' in the middle of the healing phase of a two phase Significant Biological Special program of Nature. The first, or conflict active phase in a right handed male is a so called territorial biological conflict. The fluid of the healing edema in the brain near the slow heartbeat center gets expelled in the healing crisis, floods the generator of the slow heart beat preventing this signal from reaching the heart, causing it to stop. If this fluid dissipates quickly enough, normal heart beat can resume, without any damage to the heart at all. Left handed males do not suffer this kind of heart attack, because the edema of the territorial conflict healing phase is on the left side of their brain near the fast heart beat center. The ratio of right and left handers is about 60:40.
    Mother Nature has this arrangement to assure survival of the species in case of a massive teritorial conflict event such as in a war. http://learninggnm.com .

  29. Thanks for this article as well as the stress one. I’ve been reading Mark Sisson this week and am very inspired by his ideas about being playful, having fun, unstructured, creative activity, resting time, and enjoying life. Perhaps I am receptive because of having worked in an environment where kids and their families learned through play. Adults should play too! It is funny to remember my old days at the gym: certain teachers kept repeating the general surgeon recommendations for cardio; yet I disliked the routine, the feeling of tiredness, the fluorescent lights,… However, the tai chi teacher advised us not to let our hearts beat too fast during practice. We practiced in parks, and it felt invigorating. I suspect paleo moves and traditional martial arts will be the movement programs of this century. And pretty soon conventional gyms will look so obsolete!

  30. Hey folks Chris didn’t specify what *kind* of machine. I use a Powertec Leverage system (free weights). It’s smooth and very versatile. I have seen great results with it for a full body workout. Yes some machines are a nightmare, but millions of people all over the world have had tremendous success using some form of machine. Even in gyms stocked full of free weights and pro-lifters, there is always a wide variety of machine type contraptions for any given exercise. I think it’s quite possible to get very fit with a killer physique using weight machines. If if the main argument is that our ancestors did not have that. Well, we do.

  31. Matt, I don’t have an issue with anything you’ve said. You are the expert in the gym. I would like to point out though, for those who want to stay primitive or work out out-of-doors, there are dozens of things you can do that give the intensity and can be done in the proper intervals. A lot of them can even be done around the home as part of your chores. For instance, I can shovel in my garden for 2 minutes furiously, then rake for 3 minutes, and repeat this series 8 times and have a good interval workout if I keep pressing for a high heart rate. Carrying wood or dirt in a wheel barrow, running when its full and coasting back easy empty works. Shoveling snow in bursts. Be sure in fit in the slower periods though. Sprinting with your dog, then throwing the ball for the “off” peak. Mowing the yard with a push mower and pausing to rake for the “off” time. Raking leaves “on”, carrying the bag “off”. If you live in a 2 or 3 story house, every time you go upstairs, run up, and then do a few pushup’s to make it a full 30-45 second grind. There is no end to the ideas one can come up with.

    • Heh heh heh. Raking is not “off” time. Slower, maybe. Not off. Try doing some actual housework, too, and then you wouldn’t need to run up and down stairs so much. (Besides, especially if you have small children with wayward toys, that’s a bit dangerous.) Sweeping and vacuuming will kick your butt. So will scrubbing the bathtub.

      • Dana, I’m talking about what’s known as “Interval” training, which always seems to be defined as periods of “peaking” where your heart rate is quite high, interspersed with periods of lower intensity exercise. The periods of low intensity is what I’m referring to as “off” time. And yes, to do classic interval training, you probably need to do some running up stairs, or fantastically energetic vacuuming or tub scrubbing to get in a proper “peaking” of your heart rate. Read more on interval training than what Chris has included here and you’ll see what I’m referring to.

  32. This is pretty tough to reconcile with the Born to Run hypothesis, and also with the evidence that people who run live longer and die at half the rate of non-runners.

    “Can running help you live longer?”
    http://yelling-stop.blogspot.com/2011/03/stanford-runners-study.html

    Dr. Harris’ evidence is pretty weak, and doesn’t show any signs of actual mortality. The Stanford running study, on the other hand, measures actual mortality and disability, and finds that it’s far lower for runners.

    • That’s a questionnaire-based study. Questionnaire-based studies are notoriously unreliable. Not saying Dr. Harris’s evidence is any better at that, I’m firing this off before going back and looking at the link to his article, but. Having done research surveys, I’m disinclined to trust them. I have trouble what I ate last week, much less a year ago. I can’t imagine that remembering exact distances for running routines is any easier.

      • Questionairre-based studies are unreliable for studying complicated things, like diet. For simple studies, like “Do you run?”, “Are you still alive?” they’re not so problematic.

    • OK, I went back and looked at Dr. Harris’s article. Then I went and looked at his link. In the study they were comparing marathon runners with age-matched sedentary people. They defined marathon runners as people who had completed at least 5 marathons in the past 3 years. That’s a lot easier to remember than how many miles you ran a day for twelve months, or how much red meat you ate last February (the sort of thing they ask you in studies where they conclude that red meat is “deadly”).

      Mind you, marathon running’s a whole different class of activity than just jogging two miles a day, or even five. But I wonder if the effects are cumulative such that the two-mile-a-day runner would amass the same amount of damage in two weeks that a marathon runner would in one day. If so, the daily jogger might be *worse* off in some ways. Dunno.

    • Not weak if you read it and understand it – CMR is the next best thing to a pathology specimen. Do you really think having three times the heart attacks would not relate to more mortality? You’re quite the gambler and skeptic, huh? The study can’t show mortality, because it’s cross-sectional – everyone in it is alive by definition – they did not follow them over many years, so you can say nothing at all about mortality, other than the runners had three times the number of damaged hearts, which certainly has something to do with mortality in my universe.

      My next blog post will cover the THIRD study – just published – showing the more miles you run, the more permanent cardiac fibrosis ( permanent scarring) you have in you heart.

      As far as “born to run hypothesis” you may be correct. That’s an idea that running addicts use to justify their addiction. By the way, I run about 10 miles per week and have for over 10 years. More is not better is the point. Same thing as with other hormetic agents like “antioxidants” which I just blogged about. Get polyphenols in food, not pills. Run a little, not a lot.

      • The study’s you mention show that runners have damaged hearts, but don’t show that the running caused the damaged hearts. Correlation, and not causation. Therefore weak evidence.

        Fries’ Stanford Running Study, which I excerpted in my post above, did track mortality for runners and non-runners, and found the runners to have half the annual mortality risk as non-runners. Again, not causation, but stronger evidence than you present.

        So if I take the studies that you present as true, and combine them with Fries’ study, I would come to the conclusion that runners suffer a higher rate of heart damage, but nevertheless live longer and healthier lives (with lower disability rates).

        That’s a pretty good bet to take. And no, I’m not a gambler.

        I will note that every runner I know or have heard of eats a diet that by your standards or mine is pretty horrible. That could well account for the heart disease, and at least provides a plausible mechanism.

        The notion that running is bad for us, despite the fact that we evolved to be an endurance running predator isn’t plausible, as I can’t think of another example of an animal evolved to perform an activity, yet that activity is harmful to the animal. This is analagous to explaining to a bird that it shouldn’t fly because flying is harmful to it.

        Fries’ study makes your case that a little running is as good for you as a lot of running, by the way. It just doesn’t make the case that a lot of running is bad for you.

        Aside from this one point, I think you have a great blog and have terrific posts. I wish I’d discovered it when you still allowed commenters.

        “That’s an idea that running addicts use to justify their addiction.”

        That’s just silly. If you run 10 miles a week then you run more than I do most of the time.

      • Snip. No one said anything about CF, why be a hater? ROM is the biggest crit of machines and it’s totally justifiable. CF has nothing to do with this– machines are fixed, non-individualized movement Nazis.

        Compare a barbell (or kettle or dumb bell) squat to a machine squat and they are two totally different movements. Moreover, a free weight squat is like like running– completely individualized for and by the body’s proportions. The angles, lever arms and moment arms all are customized for the specific body with free weights– in others words a machine is like a square hole for rounds pegs and the free weight aligns itself to the person’s dimensions.

  33. Matt: I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no authority in strength training. I based the last part of this article on Doug McGuff’s Body By Science protocol. I was impressed by the book and his evidence-based approach, and his arguments for machines made sense to me. However, I’ve also recently read Starting Strength and have enjoyed that perspective as well.

    This is something I’d like to learn more about. Perhaps I’ll take you up on your offer!

  34. Yep, High Interval is healthier and definitely more how the Paleo ancestors would have exerted themselves! The only thing I can add is that its also healthier to exercise (or do almost anything) outdoors than inside and, if possible, barefoot and outside! Definitely the Paleo way. This can give the advantage of cleaner air (less toxins), and electromagnetic grounding via your bare feet. I consider this subject of grounding very important to “moving like my ancestors”. There’s lots of information on this subject on the net. Here’s one source, a whole book where one author is a cardiologist with 30 years experience and now specializing in preventing heart attacks:
    http://www.shop.earthing.net/
    Here’s some more sources on grounding:
    http://www.scribd.com/doc/25045183/Grounding-Studies-Summary
    http://www.rawguru.com/grounding-ourselves-get-some-earth-on-your-feet.html

  35. Chris,

    Found out about you from the Paleo Solutions podcast. I was really impressed with your knowledge and ability to articulate your ideas.

    This post was going great until you said this: “especially if the strength-training is performed using weight machines”

    This is a direct violation of your thesis of “move like your ancestors”. Not only did they not run on treadmills neither did they lift on machines.

    There are so many things wrong with machines I will probably miss some of them. The biggest is that machines take over the stabilization duties that are key to athletic development. There is a mistaken notion that machines are safer. Taken in the big picture they are not. Working out on machines is usually isolation work and, as I mentioned, stabilized. What you get is a Frankenstein’s monster’s body of parts that don’t work together. Any strength developed is either unusable or unstable to the point of making one injury prone.

    I know of no respected strength coach that recommends using machines for anything other than minor assistance work (if that). Rippetoe, Wendler, Tsatsouline, Dan John, even Robb Wolf would all agree with me.

    The body is designed to exert itself in movement patterns not as individual muscles. Full body movements such as squats, deadlifts, and presses with free weights are the way to go here. The only downside is that you need a coach to show you how to do this stuff since they are technical movements.

    I have a private gym just down the road from you in Fremont within walking distance of the BART station. If you ever want to come by, I can show you how to do these real movements – no charge.

    • Matt,

      I agree with everything you said about machines and free weights, but the simple fact is that not everyone wants to be an athlete. Bang for your buck in terms of strength and coordination, squats, deads, and presses are gold, but as you said take time and effort to learn. HIT on machines conveys a muscular and cardiovascular benefit with unmatched bang for your buck convenience and time investment for people who are seeking joint health, strength, and some fitness.

      • I don’t want to be an “athlete,” I just want to be healthy, fit and strong. I was thinking the exact same thing as Matt while reading this. I’m a Rippetoe adherent and currently reading a lot of Dan John who himself tried the HIIT method with machines. There is literally no one with major workout experience or cred going in that direction anymore.

        Find yourself a good coach (admittedly a challenge) and learn to squat, dead lift, press. Throw in some rows or chins and an explosive exercise and you have 95%. Like Dan John, I’d add a plank and sprints, but the machines are robbing you of the real work at hand.

        I’m becoming a big Healthy Sceptic fan, but this post doesn’t jibe with everything I’ve been learning about working out.

        • Fred Hahn is using machines in his club and recommends them in his book. My workout is a combination of machines for my lower body and free weights for my upper. It works for me.

      • well what i know anout this thing about being all healthy is that it it true because maybe some people want to be very very healthy and some dont i get it but for me i am very happy to be healthy and it is good to be healthy and always exercising mostly everyday

  36. Thank you for posting this Chris, the amount of times I try to explain to many trainers/trainees/friends about the above is silly, having something I can shove under their noses via a facebook link is invaluable. The same goes for your other articles in this series.

    Thank goodness I found this site through the Paleo Solution podcast you were featured on, it’s great to hear my views/beliefs echoed from someone else, too, instead of me being called out on all my training and diet methods daily.

  37. What do you think of the nutritional recommendations in Power of 10? I thought they were terrible and it sort of put me off from the whole book.

  38. My regularly scheduled sprint drills are by far my favorite and most hated workout of the week. I don’t think there is anything more primal than running as fast as your body can possibly move. The wind rushing past my ears is simply, exhilarating.

Leave a Reply