Paleo exercise is based on the same principle as Paleo: do what you're designed to do. In this sense, Paleo exercise can be as radical a departure from standard American practice as Paleo: “exercise” means incorporating movement into your whole life, not just starting your day with an hour at the gym. Essentially, exercise should complement your healthy diet in strengthening and supporting a body capable of meeting real-world physical challenges.
If you already eat Paleo, you know advantages of eating the way you were built to eat; unsurprisingly, moving the way you were built to move has similar benefits. As well as preparing you to face the physical demands of an unpredictable world, exercise improves your immune system, lowers your risk of diabetes, osteoporosis, and stroke, promotes heart health, and increases longevity – and even more importantly, it keeps your body strong and your immune system functioning even as you age, so you can still enjoy your “golden years.” Getting regular exercise also improves your quality of life by reducing stress, preventing depression, improving memory, and helping you sleep better. Of course, let's not forget about the fact that exercise is a great tool to develop a good looking, lean and muscular body. There's nothing wrong in desiring and developing a sexy physique. The Paleo approach to fitness allows your body to reap all the rewards of physical activity, while avoiding the possible negative effects of forcing your body to move in ways it wasn’t designed for.
There is no one dogmatic approach or official Paleo fitness program. In general, the Paleo lifestyle emphasizes natural movement (preferably outside) over machine-based exercises and brief but intense strength training workouts over extended sessions of steady-state cardio. Too much cardio is the exercise equivalent of “healthy whole grains:” touted by the Department of Health, recommended by doctors everywhere, and damaging to your entire system. “Chronic cardio” keeps you in a constant “fight or flight” mode, increasing cortisol levels, inflammation, and damage to your cells from free radicals. On top of the increased stress from the exercise itself, the high-carb diet required to sustain chronic cardio harms your body in the long term by raising your insulin levels.
As well as discouraging an addiction to cardio, Paleo exercise programs stress the importance of rest and recovery time. Your workouts should leave you strong and energized, not constantly sore and exhausted, and exercise should never feel like a cruel form of torture you have to force yourself through. Fitness is important, but it should support your body, not dominate your life.
Within these broad guidelines, Paleo fitness is infinitely flexible and adaptable to individual needs – just like Paleo nutrition. The most important aspect of any exercise program is how well it works for you: experiment with any and all of the programs below until you discover what best fits your abilities and goals.
There were no elliptical trainers in the Paleolithic. While exercise machines fit conveniently into time-crunched modern schedules, they only work a narrow range of muscles and rarely mimic any movement you might need to do outside a gym. When you spend 30 minutes moving in a regimented, mechanical way and then sit for the next eight hours, you’re fundamentally disconnected from your body’s natural activity patterns.
Erwan Le Corre, founder of MovNat, refers to this disconnection as “zoo human syndrome.” To “rehabilitate” people stuck in unhealthy patterns of movement, the MovNat approach emphasizes the connection of mind and body as you re-learn 13 basic skills divided into three categories: manipulative (moving objects around), combative (self-defence), and locomotive (moving yourself from place to place).
For anyone interested in learning more about their approach to fitness, MovNat offers various workshops – but you don’t have to go to a workshop to start working on your natural movement skills. Challenge yourself to a long hike, spend some quality time climbing around in a tree, or take a swing on the monkey bars at a local playground.
Overall Strength and Conditioning
CrossFit is probably the most popular overall fitness program in Paleo circles. Famously unspecialized, CrossFit builds overall fitness through workouts that incorporate bodyweight exercises and Olympic lifting into a program you can scale to meet your own fitness level. The vocabulary seems daunting (You did the WOD as Rx’d? What?), and the exercises might look impossibly difficult, but CrossFit is known for the individual attention paid to every member – you’ll get the coaching and encouragement to make it work for you. Take a look at the map of affiliates to find CrossFit gym in your area. CrossFit affiliates do charge much higher monthly fees than many commercial gyms, but if a membership is out of your budget, you can follow along at home. A Workout of the Day (WOD) is posted daily on the main CrossFit site, which also has a guide to getting started, and CrossFit’s video demos of all the exercises used in the WODs are a great resource even if you don’t follow the official program.
CrossFit workouts are known for intensity verging on insanity. If you’re not enthused by the thought of cranking out some of the crazier WODs and just want to stay fit and healthy, the Primal Blueprint Fitness program might be a better option. Mark Sisson refers to Primal Blueprint Fitness as “CrossFit for the rest of us” – a scalable, adaptable routine designed to complement the Primal diet. The basic components of Primal Blueprint Fitness are slow movement, compound lifting exercises and bodyweight training to build strength, and occasional sprinting and high intensity training. The program focuses on functional strength, discouraging "chronic cardio" and isolation exercises. Sisson also stresses the importance of moving your body through play: exercise shouldn’t be torturous! While it’s not for serious athletes, Primal Blueprint Fitness is a great basic Paleo fitness program that doesn’t require a burdensome time commitment or any fancy equipment.
Another workout program grounded in Paleo is EPLifeFit (Everyday Paleo Life and Fitness), run by the same team as the blog Everyday Paleo. Sarah and Jason are strength and conditioning coaches, and John is a chiropractor – through EPLifeFit, they provide virtual assistance and support to clients at any level of fitness, without requiring a lot of expensive gym equipment. EPLifeFit posts daily workouts with instructions, and the forums let you connect with a community, ask questions, and even upload videos for Sarah and Jason to check your form.
More Paleo-friendly resources for overall fitness include the Nerd Fitness blog and the incredibly supportive and helpful community at the site’s forums (including one dedicated to Paleo). Nerd Fitness focuses on bodyweight exercises and workouts you can take anywhere – Steve, the founder, maintains his exercise habits while he ranges around the world in search of adventure. Free resources on the site include a variety of different workouts, from a basic beginner bodyweight routine to the clever angry birds workout to rarer exercises like parkour.
While programs like CrossFit, EPLifeFit, and Primal Blueprint Fitness focus more on overall conditioning, Stronglifts, Starting Strength, and Leangains are specifically designed to increase your strength and muscle mass through powerlifting. These programs all have three basic common features: they encourage compound lifts over isolation exercises, free weights over machines, and lifting heavier weights at fewer reps. Compound lifts build strength more efficiently than isolation exercises, by working more muscle groups with each exercise. Training with free weights is much more effective than spending hours on different types of machines, which don’t engage your stabilizer muscles and force your body into artificial positions; like MovNat, these powerlifting programs encourage you to use your entire natural range of motion to gain strength and avoid injury. Lifting relatively heavy weights at low reps is more useful for building strength than lifting low weights at high reps – Stronglifts, for example, specifies a 5x5 setup: 5 sets of 5 reps each.
Any strength training program’s website will display plenty of pictures of impressively muscular trainees, but you don’t already have to be a powerlifter to start building muscle: pick a program that works for your goals and start with whatever weight you can lift with good form. Don’t be discouraged if you have to start off by lifting 20 pounds: champion weightlifters weren’t born with barbells in hand, either! And if you need some equipment on a shoestring budget, check out DIY strength training gear for ideas.
Rest and recovery
All of the exercise programs outlined above emphasize the importance of rest. Mainstream exercise culture promotes the idea that the more hours you put in, the better – probably because so many people see exercise as a necessary evil that “allows” them to eat more calories. But the goal of Paleo fitness is not to burn as many calories as possible in an endless cycle of overeating and painfully increasing your time on the treadmill. All of the programs above incorporate rest days for a reason. When you do high intensity workouts, leave plenty of time for your muscles to recover, and don’t ignore signs of overtraining. More is not better!
Movement and lifestyle
Giving your body time to recover from a tough workout doesn’t mean lying on the couch watching TV when you’re not at the gym: the artificial dichotomy between intense, focused exercise (at the gym) and sitting still (for the rest of your day) is a modern construction that your body was not designed for. Paleo fitness means a sustained commitment to taking care of your body all the time – like Paleo, Paleo fitness has no quick fix or easy way out. Slow movement should be a regular feature of your life, especially on your rest days from more strenuous activity. Plan movement into your routine: try using a standing desk or building regular stretches into your workday. Walking or biking instead of driving everywhere is also a practical way to work slow movement into your life.
As varied as Paleo, Paleo exercise has the same basic goal: to improve your health by working with your body, not against it. Aside from general guidelines – focus on natural movement and consistent physical activity, emphasize briefer periods of high intensity work over endless cardio – Paleo fitness means whatever way of moving your body works best for you. The programs above are a great start: experiment with them, keep track of your results, and find a way of moving that fits into your life.