It has been good to interview him and learn a little more of his thinking and background. There is some great stuff in here, from the placebo effect to the need for a tribe! Read on.....
1. Frank could you tell the readers something of your background in health and fitness?
Actually, I got into this more than 30 years ago and back then, there really wasn’t a “fitness industry” to speak of. I was doing martial art (karate), which completely turned me on. I was fascinated by the culture, the mythology and the romance, even though it was really just a shopping mall dojo. I trained really hard and loved it.
At the same time, I was studying human evolution at Stanford and I kept wondering how my training methods might have relevance to human history. Later, I began training in aikido and spent a year in massage school. This in turn led to studying various physical therapy practices and the functional approach, especially as taught by Vern Gambetta and Gary Gray. Finally, I met Stuart Brown at the National Institute for Play. He turned me on to the vital importance of play in all domains.
2. I can’t remember where I first came across your name but it was a few years ago (maybe here). I bought “Play as if your life depends on it!” and I remember devouring the book, loving it. Could you explain the premise of the book for those that have yet to read it?
My main idea is that physical training ought to be “primal, practical and playful.” In other words, it’s got to have some relevance to our ancestral origins, it’s got to be functional, and it’s got to be fun.
At the time, I was simply working the language, but the triad has proven to be extremely rich; each concept feeds the other. No matter where we start, one practice leads into the others: playful movements tend to be functional, functional movements are ideal for life outdoors.
It’s my version of a holistic practice. I feel very fortunate to have stumbled across this combination.
3. How did you arrive at this philosophy?
I never felt comfortable with any mono-discipline; I’m always looking for checks, balances and confirmations. Plus, I like to mix and match training practices to make things richer.
I’ve always believed that physical training can be an entry point into a wider education. Yes, train the body hard, but use that experience to explore other domains. The ancients were all about seeking a well-rounded practice of physicality and knowledge. My sensei was big on this: he never allowed us to concentrate exclusively on physical training. The idea was to branch out whenever possible and keep reaching for new ideas and experiences.
4. One of the things that I remember feeling as I read your book was a great sense of freedom. So much of modern training and conditioning – even the word smacks of psychological experiments - seems regimented and focussed, driven by formulae and theory. Structures. You seem to give permission to just have fun? Just to move. Is that fair?
Yes, play is vital, but I still believe in the fundamentals of sweat, rigor, discipline and hard work.
The neat thing is that we can combine these two perspectives into a single training process. The trick lies in creative oscillation–moving between the poles of discipline and freedom. This requires lots of judgment, attention and a sense of timing, but the payoff can be immense.
Neuroscience backs this up, by the way. We know that the human nervous system thrives under conditions that alternate between serious effort and playful messing around. Reach and rest, strive and relax. Unfortunately, not too many people build this oscillation into their practices; we tend to specialize in one style or another.
5. One thing that you do not discuss much in the book in any detail is the idea of diet. How do you eat? Do you try to replicate the diet of our hunter-gatherer ancestors as well as their activity patterns?
It’s taken me some time to formulate an opinion on nutrition. The problem is that there was probably a lot of diversity in primal diets and we can be sure that nutrition varied a lot between tribes and bioregions.
The one constant however, is that they all ate real food, minimally processed, and they had to work pretty hard to get it.
The Paleolithic rhythm was simple: locomote, then eat, locomote, then eat, etc. This alternating pattern is surely fundamental to our physiology.
The other problem–one that no one seems to talk about–is that our experience with food is massively influenced by placebo effects. If you believe that your diet is the right one, it will probably be better for you! You’ll probably absorb more nutrients and make better use of what you do eat. Psychological factors may very well outweigh minor differences in actual food content.
This is why I’m reluctant to get involved in strident debates about food. In any case, I like Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman on nutrition. I’ve recently been reading Richard Wrangham’s book, Catching Fire. According to Wrangham, cooking made all the difference in human history. Heat makes food easier to digest and surely made a survival difference for many people and tribes. More cooking means more calories and protein, and over time, a smaller gut and in turn, a bigger brain.
Like everything else, the extremes of processing are problematic. Raw food is natural, but it takes forever to chew and it doesn’t deliver as many nutrients. Hyper-processed food is easy to chew, swallow and digest, but also promotes disease. The sweet spot is in the middle: lightly cooked and processed food is best.
At any rate, I try to stick to real food and avoid the “edible food-like substances,” especially trans-fats and high-fructose corn syrup. I try to eat like my grandparents. Not exactly Paleo, but pretty tasty and sustainable.
6. Modern society seems to be sad! I keep hearing of friends or family members who are depressed or suffering anxiety attacks. How much of this stress and dissatisfaction do you think comes from our “modern” lifestyles?
Depression is epidemic. The World Health Organization forecasts that, by 2020, “depression will be second only to heart disease in terms of disability or disease burden.”
To me, this is even more shocking than our epidemics of heart disease, obesity and diabetes. This is a disease state that’s psychospiritual as well as physical. There are many explanations, but I like the work of Kelly Lambert. She’s a neuroscientist who’s traced reward centers in the brain. She’s discovered a strong association between areas that coordinate movement and those that deliver a sense of satisfaction. I call this “the ancestral reward system.”
We move vigorously in search of a goal, usually food, and then we feel a sense of satisfaction for having done so. In contrast, modern society offers us only abstract striving (with computers) and even many of our rewards are non-physical and intangible. Consequently, we experience a sort of neurological black hole of non-reward. A huge percentage of our circuitry goes unused and dormant. I believe that an enormous amount of depression stems from inactivity. The human body thrives on action.
7. What can we do about it?
This puts our physical training in a new light.
As trainers and educators, we are doing a lot more than building muscle, cardio or skill. We’re actually pumping up the reward circuitry in our brains and delivering a sense of satisfaction and resilience.
Movement is thus highly protective against depression. Sooner or later, people are going to figure this out. The way to counter the epidemic of depression is to get people moving again. Any movement is good, but locomotion is probably the best place to begin. Long walks, or running if people can manage it, are ideal.
Mimic the experience of travelling the grassland and you’ll get a good outcome.
8. Do you think that the social aspect to exercise is important? I enjoy a run on my own, or time in the gym, but there is something special about walking with friends or sparring at a martial art class. Have we missed something? Do we need a tribe to be fit and healthy?
The research is pretty clear on this. People learn better in groups and they tend to be healthier as well. Social isolation is dangerous to mind and body across the board.
This is completely consistent with what we know about human evolution. Obviously, the ancestral environment was thick with danger, especially in the form of predators. The key to staying alive was to stick with the group; loners tended to become cat food.
Consequently, we are hyper-social animals and we need one another in order to thrive. So, instead of setting up gyms with “stations” and rows of machines, we ought to be focusing instead on group classes. But drop-in classes aren’t really the solution either.
What we really need is a culture of social experience in which people spend more time together, moving their bodies over the course of months and years. The martial art dojo is a perfect model for this: start as a white belt and stick with the tribe for a few years. This experience fosters cohesion, mutual support and a sense of community.
9. Another aspect of you book that I really enjoyed was your work on walking – you have a chapter on Being a Better Biped, which is fascinating. Do you think we have forgotten how to walk properly?
Absolutely. Modern athletic shoes are a catastrophe, especially the marshmallow trainers that we wear to “cushion the shock.”
When kids wear these shoes from an early age, they never really learn how to engage the ground on its own terms. They never learn the sensory-motor connection. Plus, most of our modern “terrain” is flat, smooth and level. Thus, there’s no diversity of challenge and no reason for the sensory-motor system to adapt. We wind up with one style of gait – a recipe for injury and ineffectiveness.
Primal hunters probably had hundreds of gait combinations for various terrain; their ankles, knees and hips were smart. In contrast, most modern people need remedial education in walking.
This is something I’ve learned over the last couple of years: as I’ve increased my barefoot time, I’ve realized how much skill goes into simple walking. This is an immensely rich discipline in its own right.
10. How are your ideas developing? Are there any new concepts and games that have recently entered the Exuberant Animal programme?
The primal-practical-playful combination continues to yield new ideas.
One of the most promising is “partner-resist.” This is a unique physical relationship in which one person acts as “athlete” while the other acts as “coach.” The coach selects a functional movement and then provides smooth resistance by hand as the athlete executes. It takes some learning and leadership to get it going, but the whole thing is immensely promising. Not only can you build some strength, you can also make your body smarter in the face of constantly shifting resistance. Plus, it’s a lot of fun. The physical negotiation in partner-resist is fascinating and we’re only now just scratching the surface. You can find examples of partner-resist training in the new collection, The Exuberant Animal PlayBook
1. I saw a video of a lecture that you did - "A Body Centered Curriculum", subtitled "The Primate's Predicament" where you explained very well your proposal that our bodies are designed for a world that no longer exists. Sometimes in those who recommend a paleo / hunter-gatherer diet and exercise approach I detect a romantic, almost utopian view of the life of our ancestors. However, I for one am grateful for many of the comforts and benefits of 21st century life. How can we combine the best of today’s technology, food and medicine with the lessons of our Hunter Gatherer ancestors?
Yes, great point. Many of us romanticize the Paleo life, but it must have been brutally hard at times. I think the best way to look at modern comfort is “the dose makes the poison.”
Yes, the soft bed, hot food and easy transport is great, but only up to a point. If we imbibe too much, it makes us sick. So, I like to take intentional trips away from modernity. A few climbing trips each year seems to do the trick.
Deprive yourself of comfort and you really begin to appreciate it. Another approach is to set intentional limits on modern comfort.
I never take an escalator, for example. I wrote that one off my list years ago.
12. Generalist or specialist? It is fun to get good at physical skills but I get the impression that you would prefer us to be generalists. Is that fair? Do you think that we suffer from specialising as athletes?
The problem with specialization is that it tends to inflame tissue with excess repetition and lead to “ruts” in the nervous system.
It’s exciting to develop a single capability to its full potential, but there’s danger there as well. The generalist won’t develop spectacular skills, but will probably have a longer training career. And even among specialists, diversity is essential.
The conventional wisdom these days is that it takes 10 years or 10,000 hours of training to develop a complete talent or world-class athlete. But no one can sustain such long-term effort without some side trips. So, even if you want to excel at a specialization, branching out is still a good idea.
13. I was interested in your view of the pull up or chin up in the book. You indicate that this would not be a normal natural move for us “in the wild”. Could you expand on that idea?
That’s easy. Would you ever climb a tree without using your feet? Maybe, but if I had a lion chasing me, I’d be using every appendage possible.
When I observed the chimps at Gombe, I noticed that they used their feet constantly, in spite of having immense upper body power. If you’re a hunter-gatherer, you might be forced into an arms-only pull-up, but that would be rare.
Better to become an accomplished full-body climber. With that in mind, I modify my movements. I still do pull-ups, but I use my feet–either one or both. Rock climbing gyms are ideal for this. You can do thousands of pulling combinations that involve whole body integration. Or better yet, you can practice real climbing in real trees.
14. Have you any thoughts about sleep?
This one is really fascinating.
When I was in Gombe, I learned that the chimps went to bed at sundown and pretty much slept all night. But a recent book by anthropologist Frances Burton suggests that fire shifted our circadian life dramatically.
(See Fire: The Spark that Ignited Human Evolution)
The excess light of the campfire altered our melatonin cycles and suddenly we began staying up later into the night. It seems likely that this development opened the way to an oral tradition, storytelling and later, art and culture. I know some people who advocate for “sleep at dark,” but I think that staying up a bit later is natural.
In any case, sleep is profoundly important and massively underrated. If you want to build memories and promote learning, you’ve got to sleep as much as possible.
15. I understand that you have recently been doing some work with Erwan Le Corre of MovNat. His videos on YouTube and the articles on his approach in magazines seem to be switching people on to this way of training. Do you think that these concepts will ever catch on in the mainstream?
Great question. In the great battle of sex appeal v. function, sex usually wins. But word is getting around. More and more people are talking about core training, function and the importance of the nervous system. And even more importantly, serious people are talking about the virtues of outdoor experience and contact with nature.
The science is pretty conclusive and is getting more compelling all the time. And even more encouraging, it’s now possible to talk about evolution in public. The evidence for a human history is now so overwhelming that it is impossible to deny our past. More and more people will start thinking in these terms. Eventually, the fitness industry will get the message.
16. Another name that I have seen associated with you recently is Barefoot Ted. From what I read in the excellent Book – Born to Run - he seems to be a real character! Any stories to tell?
Ted is a wonderful person and capable of intense focus. Once he gets his attention into a project, watch out! After working with him on some projects, I can see how he can run long distances barefoot. He’s got the mind for it and his body is incredibly capable.
Another great personality is Mick Dodge, “The Barefoot Sensei.” Mick has been barefoot for over 15 years and has worked up an entire philosophy and mythology of the barefoot experience. He’s currently on a 1,000 mile walk across the Pacific Northwest, carrying the message on health.
17. In September I understand that you are coming to Edinburgh to do a seminar with my friend Rannoch of Simple Strength / Kettlebells Scotland. What can we expect from your seminar?
We are going to have a blast! As usual, I’ll alternate between scholarship and movement. We’ll talk about the human predicament and the state of the animal, then we’ll get down to some functional games. Then back to the classroom and a discussion of human origins and primal lifeways. Then more movement and so on. We’ll do lots of partner-resist and a little bit of martial art.
I’m assuming some pretty robust and motivated participants, so we’re going to make a vigorous go of it. You’ll learn lots of new movements as well as get some interesting new ideas for expanding your training.
18. Thanks for taking the time to do this interview Frank. I hope to be able to meet you in September!
If you are interested in attending the seminar in September (5th and 6th) get in touch with Rannoch - firstname.lastname@example.org