I recently came across Arthur DeVany’s blog, where he actively discusses his Evolutionary Fitness protocol. Art’s a 70 year-old guy who is in fantastic shape, weighing about 200 pounds at about 10% bodyfat. He’s really a picture of what any of us would want to look and feel like at his age. He’s been active for a very long time and is extremely smart. Over the years, his philosophy toward physical fitness has come to be informed greatly by the evolutionary heritage of the human species.
Now, I believe one of the greatest advantages of living in the 21st Century is our awareness of our own evolution. The baby-boomers are really the first generation to have wide-spread knowledge of the history of human development going back 40,000 years and beyond. The advantages this has to understanding your own personal development are huge, so when I stumbled upon Art’s work, I ate it up.
Keep in mind, I’m not a geneticist or evolutionary biologist, but I have done a fair bit of homework for this article. Even so, I welcome corrections from those who might have a more informed perspective on this subject. My general pattern when I come across an intriguing body of work is to consume as much of it as I can, digest it over a period of time, and spit it back out on this blog. Doing this helps me learn more about the particular system and internalize the core concepts, while making it my own at the same time. This article is my analysis of Art DeVany’s Evolutionary Fitness essay.
The basic premise of his paradigm is that the human genome evolved to thrive in a prehistoric landscape. The conditions of that landscape included the constant, unpredictable threat from predators, an abundant, yet often difficult to acquire food supply, and the need to travel most distances on foot. Obviously, the conditions of today are dramatically different. In the interim, human beings have come a long way in terms of cognitive and emotional development, but in terms of the various physiological potentialities the human genome can express, not much has changed in 40,000 years.
To understand what Art is getting at, it is imperative one understands what is known in genetics as the genotype-phenotype distinction. Basically, the genotype is an organism’s full hereditary information. It is a set of potentialities that will express themselves through morphology, development and behavior based upon the organism’s interaction with its environment. This ultimate expression of genotype is known as phenotype - the actual observed properties of the organism.
Since the early days of human beings, agriculture and industry have radically changed food production, availability and composition; technology has radically changed our lifestyles. While some of this change is clearly positive, DeVany’s point is that healthy gene expression in the human species is still largely triggered by conditions prevalent in the prehistoric landscape we spent millennia adapting to. How it works is basically the human genome (input), which is like the genetic blueprint for the human being, contains a string of potentialities that express themselves in different ways under different conditions. The collection of these expressions is the phenotype (output), the individual human being.
The fact that there is such variance in output belies the adaptive nature of these living systems. Your body therefore will always adapt to changing conditions and demands. But here’s the rub – your body doesn’t seem to care much if those adaptations are helpful or not. This is why if you overload your body with high-glycemic carbohydrates, it will develop insulin resistance and lead to diabetes. That’s obviously not a desirable adaptation, but your body’s just doing what it’s designed to do – express its genotype based on prompts present in its environment. The problem is, the human genome adapted to thrive in a prehistoric landscape, and it consequently “relies on low-glycemic foods, low levels of insulin, high levels of activity, and correct body composition to properly express” itself in a healthy phenotype.
What to do about this? Well, DeVany maintains, since our species is essentially a hunter-gatherer genotype developed 40,000 years ago, healthy adaptations will come naturally if you mimic or approximate the conditions of the prehistoric landscape. This does not mean taking a trip to Jurassic Park, or following Chris McCandless into the wild. Below are some quotes from DeVany that caught my eye, followed by some suggestions I put together based on his work that should help you get more out of your human body.
Quotes from Arthur DeVany Interviews
- If you give up the idea of the old Soviet command and control that I have to determine this outcome or I’m a failure, if you realize the world is random and you can’t control any outcome, then the whole notion of failure goes away and you realize that every experience is just feedback, not failure. That dramatically effects your perception of how to proceed. If you give up, that’s a failure. It’s not possible.
- Understand that you can’t determine any outcome. Once you realize that the world is sort of a random process, even if you make the best decisions, the outcome may change simply because some random event in the world occurs.
- spend a lot of time on your feet (I always teach class on my feet and when on the telephone) this is something humans always did until very recently; there are no elevators; bound a bit going up stairs; run more as in playing catch, but not as in JOGGING (a dreadful practice and I never saw a jogger who had a good body); be playful and take pleasure in play (I spend hours with my grandson running and throwing things); throw things now and then (an essential skill for a Paleolithic ancestor).
- Get up early and out in the sun; morning sun on your face brigthens the whole day. Eat a large breakfast (me: four egg whites with fresh spices, half a cantelope, and a ham steak with coffee). Eat dinner well before bed time and go to bed on an empty stomach. Work out fast, but carefully. Lastly, take a good brand of antioxidants that contain glutathione. I have done so for the past close to 20 years and believe it has slowed my aging by quite a lot.
Evolutionary Fitness Tips
- Eat for texture and color. Texture means fiber, which is essential for digestion and waste elimination. Diversity in color means diversity in nutritional content. Getting plenty of texture in your daily meals and consuming foods of at least three or four different colors daily will take you a long toward expressing your healthy genetic heritage.
- Play a lot. Sport is great for the mind and great for the body. Learning different sports encourages the body’s natural adaptive capabilities and challenges your neuromuscular connections. Things like playing catch, playing tennis, soccer, basketball, racquetball, or volleyball require short, urgent bursts of energy output mixed with periods of recovery. This mimics the demands of the hunter-gatherer-runner-from-things-that-might-you genotype that underlies the human species.
- Explore intermittent fasting. All animals intuitively know the value of the occasional fast. Fasting gives your body a rest from the constant task of digestion and has been shown to have many benefits. Our ancestors were quite used to food being scarce at some times and abundant at others. For on this, visit TheIFLife blog, or check out Dr. Fuhrman’s book, Fasting and Eating for Health.
- Embrace whole foods. Stay to the perimeters of the grocery store as much as possible. Our ancestors never saw a TV dinner, hydrogenated vegetable oil, enriched bleached flour, or high-fructose corn syrup; and the only fast food they knew about were the animals that got away. Our modern bodies, while probably a bit better at processing this stuff, still have little use for it.
- Embrace raw foods. My diet is roughly 60% raw. Cooking foods generally depletes nutritional value. I don’t think you have to go crazy on this one, but try to find ways you can institute more raw in your diet. I usually start with fruit in the morning, have a big raw salad at lunch, then have a tasty cooked meal in the evening.
- Work for workout efficiency. You don’t need to spend an hour a day in the gym to get results. Focus on multi-joint exercises and lift heavy (and safely) in order to recruit all muscle fiber types to get the most bang for your buck. When you’re not lifting, play sport, run fast and hard, or take a long hike. Mix it up, keep it fun, and stay out of the gym as much as you can.
- Take the scenic route. There are no elevators, people. Take the stairs if at all possible. Also, walk as much as you can. If there was one activity we are perfectly designed to do, it’s walking. I work on a hospital campus that is quite large. I could take the shuttle bus over to the parking lot in the mornings and after work, but I choose to walk. If more people did the same, they would see changes in their bodies.
- Soak in the rays. Don’t be afraid of the sun, folks. I know this flies in the face of every Men’s Health article and everything on the NIH website, but get out in the sun. And don’t slather on SPF 30 every 15 minutes. Look, be smart about, no one wants to look like a lobster and feel like a burn victim, but sun exposure is great natural source of Vitamin D, and by golly, it just makes me feel good.
- Do the wave. Properly timing your workouts based their intensity level is paramount to making sure you recover properly and keep hold of your gains. If you’re unsure about how to do this, I suggest finding a CST Instructor near you for some advice.
- Buy local. Our ancestors had to find food close by to travel to where they could find more of it. We would all benefit from doing more of this. You get fresher produce and meat products by buying locally. It’s not as much of a strain on the environment in terms of pollution, oil consumption and the like. Plus, you’re putting money directly into the hands of those who are producing the food.
Links to Futher Reading
- Environmental Effects on Gene Expression Phenotype Have Regional Biases in the Human Genome
- Metabolic Pathways and Gene Expression
- The Genotype and the Phenotype and How to Measure Divergence
- The Mapping Fallicy
- An Interview with Art DeVany
- Another Interview with Art DeVany
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