Is the Modern Lifestyle Killing You?

Have you ever wondered how our ancestors lived? In what ways and environments did they live that might shock us today? How did they become so strong, without the expertise of exercise scientists and the equipment found in our gyms. How did they survive without the modern comforts we are accustomed to, like running water, central heating/cooling and electricity? If their lives were so much harder than ours, shouldn't they have gotten sick and died more often and easily than we do today? Why didn't they get the lifestyle diseases that are so prevalent in our modern world?

Well, it turns out that they were naturally strong simply due to how they lived. Life took effort, whereas our modern lifestyle doesn't typically require physical toil. In our most recent blog, we talk about the broad concept known as Mismatched Evolution, you can read it here. Evolutionary Mismatch is now being used to look at how the modern lifestyle impacts our health and well-being. This concept touches on all aspects of health and wellness. Current research has shown that the biggest lifestyle factors for preventing common, deadly chronic diseases are:

A leading researcher in this field is Daniel Lieberman, a Paleoanthropologist at Harvard University. He has written two books on these topics- The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health and Disease and Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding. These books take an evidence based approach to uncover why our ancestors were so strong and healthy and how we can emulate them and achieve both wellness and vitality in our lives through modern exercise. We summarize his findings on how exercise impacts many of the most common lifestyle diseases below.

Obesity and Exercise

    Obesity is a growing phenomenon worldwide, wherever the modern lifestyle goes, it comes along. It was virtually unknown in premodern and foraging communities. As of 2021, two billion people were overweight or obese. Obesity overloads our joints, alters breathing and having an overabundance of fat cells leads to an overproduction of hormones, altered metabolism and contributes to inflammation. Additionally, obesity is a risk factor for cardiovascular diseases like heart attacks and strokes, as well as type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancer, kidney disease, osteoarthritis, asthma, Alzheimer's disease and many other conditions. Especially dubious is when the fat is around the organs (visceral fat). 

    So, we all know that being overweight is not healthy, but we might not know how to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Studies have shown that eating a healthier diet is the best way to lose weight, and that exercise is the best way to maintain a healthy body weight. 

    When it comes to losing weight, it is about spending more calories than you consume, but you can't out exercise a bad diet. For example, a 2 mile walk burns about 100 calories more than simply sitting, but one 12oz soda has about 140 calories. So, a walk will not offset a soda.

    It should be noted that when it comes to losing weight, cardio is a better form of exercise than weight lifting. 

    Type 2 Diabetes, Metabolic Syndrome and Exercise

      Metabolic Syndrome is the precursor to Type 2 Diabetes, yet many people don't know what it means. It is a term used for a person who has most (or all) of the following:

      • High blood sugar
      • High cholesterol
      • High blood pressure 
      • A large waist

      These also often come with fatty livers, as well as obesity. It is thought that 20-25% of adults globally have Metabolic Syndrome, and it is said that that number will double in the next couple of decades. Additionally, Type 2 Diabetes in children is now the fastest growing disease in the world. 

      Type 2 diabetes can lead to premature death over time when left uncontrolled because it can damage blood vessels and nerves necessary for helping your heart, eyes, and other important organs function properly. In fact, it is estimated that 65% of people with diabetes will die from some form of heart disease or stroke. It is also the leading cause of blindness in adults over 20 and can even lead to limb loss.

      Type 2 Diabetes wasn't really something our ancestors got. In fact, a small study done on Australian Aborigines found that those with Type 2 Diabetes were able to reverse their diabetes after just seven weeks of returning to an active lifestyle of hunting and gathering. This shows just how impactful exercise can be on our health. Sometimes exercise alone can reverse Type 2 diabetes, other times people need a mix of medicine, exercise and diet. It is best to figure that out with your doctor.

      In terms of exercise, it has been shown that cardio activities are best for combatting Metabolic Syndrome, especially HIIT (high intensity interval training). However, for the very best results, a mix of different types of exercise are beneficial. Many studies have also found that weight lifting helps restore muscle sensitivity to insulin, so it is also very helpful.

      Cardiovascular Diseases and Exercise

        Cardiovascular and Heart Diseases are the leading cause of death in the United States. Although some types of cardiovascular diseases have been found in mummies, mummies were typically the wealthiest in their culture, having a lifestyle and eating foods that no one else at the time would have been able to. They were living a life more comparable to the modern day, and as a result, they had some of the lifestyle diseases we see today; the rest of the people did not.

        In our culture, it is often thought that blood pressure naturally rises with age. However, this is not true in many hunter-gatherer communities, such as the Hazda and San, who still live in a mostly traditional and natural way. The average blood pressure is the same for both a 70 year old and 20 year old among the San. Lifelong low blood pressure is also common in many subsistence farming cultures, such as the Tarahumara. Low blood pressure and low cholesterol seem to prevent active, non-industrialists from developing coronary artery disease. For example, CT scans of the hearts of Tsimane forager farmers from the Amazon found no plaque, even in the oldest among them, clearly showing that these "age-related diseases" are not actually due to aging.

        The main factors in developing these types of diseases seem to be:

        • High cholesterol
        • High blood pressure 
        • Inflammation 
        • A lack of movement

        In addition to not smoking and avoiding processed foods that are high in sugars, salts and saturated fats, exercise is key in combating these issues. It is probably not surprising that cardio fitness is the best type of exercise for the health of the cardiovascular system. A study of about 10,000 modern men found that those with good cardiovascular fitness had more than a fourfold lower risk for cardiovascular disease than those with poor fitness. Additionally, those that improved their fitness were able to cut their risk in half. For these types of conditions, weight lifting is also helpful, as long as it is done with cardio training.

        Cancer and Exercise

          Killing about 1 in 4 people, cancer is the second leading causing of death worldwide. Cancer is a disease that occurs when a natural process within the body goes awry. Our cells are constantly duplicating, but occasionally these cells get a harmful mutation that divides uncontrollably. Our ancestors may have gotten cancer, but from the limited evidence available, it looks like hunter-gatherers and non-industrial populations got it at far lower rates than we see today.

          Additionally, as we have modernized, cancer rates continue to rise. For example, breast cancer rates in the U.K. doubled from 1921 to 2004. Cancer is a natural process of all life, since we still aren't very good at treating it, prevention is the best course of action.

          Luckily for us, exercise seems to be helpful at preventing some types of cancer. A collection of studies that followed more than 650,000 elderly adults for over a decade found that those that exercised regularly had dramatically lower rates of cancer than sedentary people (13-20% lower for modest exercisers and 25-30% lower for those who exercised even more). 

          Exercise seems to impact some types of cancer more strongly than others, having the greatest impact on breast and colon cancer. (It is thought that regular exercise reduces women's risk of breast cancer by 30-40% and both men's and women's risk of colon cancer by 40-50%). Since there are many different types of cancer, it is hard to know for sure which types of exercise are best at preventing and treating it, however, moderate aerobic exercise and resistance training have been shown to lower the risk of some types of cancer, with higher doses of exercise generally associated with an even lowered risk.

          Although the mechanism for why exercise helps prevent some types of cancer is not fully understood, it is thought to be linked to how exercise impacts the body in these four ways:

          • It helps to regulate reproductive hormones (higher levels of estrogen is a risk factor for developing breast cancer).
          • It helps regulate sugar use/production (Many types of cancer feed on sugar and sugar contributes to inflammation).
          • It aids in inflammation prevention (Inflammation causes many kinds of cellular damage).
          • It helps stimulate the immune system (Exercise naturally turns on the body's maintenance and repair systems and it might even enhance the effectiveness of natural killer (NK) cells- the primary way that the immune system recognizes and destroys cancer cells).
          Exercise and Chronic Musculoskeletal Conditions

            As we age, many of us are ailed by muscle wasting (sarcopenia), bone loss (osteoporosis) and cartilage degeneration in our joints (osteoarthritis). This triad often leads to a vicious cycle of altered movements, falls and bed rest; making normal things like walking, getting out of bed and life in general difficult. These also lead to complications from inactivity such as blood clots and pneumonia, as well as body pain and poor sleep. It has been shown that hunter-gatherers didn't lose much strength as they aged, but there are currently no good estimates of osteoporosis in hunter gatherers.

            However, we do know that osteoporosis has risen a lot in postindustrial countries. Lifetime risk of osteoporosis in women is now 40-50% and 13-22% for men. These lead to 10,000,000 fractures per year in developed countries. Osteoarthritis has been around for millions of years, as it is evident in the archaeological record, but is has more than doubled since World War II. More than 25% of adults in the U.S. have been diagnosed with some kind of osteoarthritis (the knees are the most commonly diagnosed).

            When it comes to loss of muscle and strength, the impact of exercise to prevent and reverse these conditions is well known. Muscles benefit from all types of exercise, but loss of muscle mass and strength are best combatted with resistance training, often through weight lifting. Bone density is also significantly helped through resistance training, especially free weights that load the body. Bone density is best built when we are young, but weight bearing exercises help prevent the loss of bone density as we age. Vitamin D and Calcium are also very important.

            Cartilage degeneration has been more difficult to understand and the impacts of exercise are not clear. Degeneration can occur from over use, however we would then expect to see less degeneration in the sedentary population than the fit population, which is not the case. It is thought that exercise probably helps joint health because it helps prevent obesity, which contributes to more inflammation and puts excess pressure on the joints. Exercise also helps strengthen the muscles around joints, which helps protect them. So, for musculoskeletal health, the best exercises are weight bearing forms of resistance training (free weights).

            Final Thoughts

            Our ancestors would probably find exercising in a gym, willingly, or for fun, a strange, unusual and amusing concept. For their lifestyle was filled with a diverse range of different movements and they often needed to conserve energy. Hence, they did not need to "exercise" and they were all naturally fit due to the way that they lived. For us modern day folks, it seems that cardio is best for most health benefits, but lifting weights is also very important- especially for bone and muscle health.

            You don't have to live like a cave (wo)man, but maybe we should live a little more like our ancestors did to be naturally strong- Eat real and natural foods, spend time outdoors and enjoy a lot of physically activity. Just like our bodies need many different types of nutrients from different types of food, they also need many different types of movement; so move often and be well.

            We, here at Lotus Tribe, want to share everything there is to know about living well with you, so that you can live your best, healthiest and happiest life. We hope that our Blog Library will be a resource for you and that you have enjoyed this latest installment of our blogs. Hopefully it helped you understand the modern health predicament a little better.

            If you would like to learn more, we highly recommend that you give Daniel Lieberman's books a read, or Move Your DNA by Biomechanics expert Katy Bowman.  Also, for general health and wellness, check out our blogs on nutrition, health, wellness, Yoga, stress managementenvironmental risk factorsMeditation and Mindfulness.


            *This blog is created and published online for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice and should not be relied on as health or personal advice. Always seek the guidance of your doctor or other qualified health professional with any questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition.