As an upstanding member of the Paleo community, you’re on board with pushing your physical boundaries from time to time. Like your hunter-gatherer ancestors did on a regular basis, you sprint as though there was a lion chasing you, you carry weight that mimics a carcass, or you run for miles in a would-be persistence hunt. The argument to do this is compelling and there’s research to back up that this approach to fitness is better than most.
The blind spot in this scenario is what happens with added intensity in the joints, ligaments, and tendons of a modern human frame. Paleo activity with misaligned skeletal parts isn’t such a happy mix, and the notion that poor postural habits will simply auto correct with increased activity is wishful thinking. It’s parallel to expecting a crooked axle to right itself by driving extra hard or extra far. More likely, the extra load and speed will result in wear and tear and arthritic changes in the joints, where bones approximate each other inappropriately, and ligaments and tendons are unduly strained. So before you entertain notions of lifting heavy weights and running far or fast, do yourself a favor and learn to antevert your pelvis, stack your vertebrae, and generally align your skeleton paleo style. 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back has step by step instructions on how to bring about this transformation, although since these shifts will feel “unnatural” at first, it’s preferable to have a teacher coach you through the steps.
Sleeping on hard surfaces
You’re out camping – the stars are out in legions, the hypnotic sound of a brook nearby cleanses away your thoughts, and the sounds of the forest awe you – you’re marveling at the experience and wondering why you don’t do this more often. As you settle into sleep, you try to find a comfortable position. Your camping mat isn’t quite accommodating you the way your bed does. You try the side, then the back, then a twisted position. Finally, you fall asleep only to wake up feeling somewhat bruised and sore in the back. The remainder of the night is spent restlessly and unsuccessfully trying to get comfortable. What a pity! What secrets did our hunter-gatherer ancestors have that enabled them to sleep night after night on surfaces harder than your camping mat?
The biggest factor in being comfortable sleeping on any surface is spinal length. Whether you are sleeping on your side or on your back, lying on a firm surface creates some degree of distortion in the spine. When you’re on your side, the distortion happens because of a discrepancy between the width of your hips (especially in women) or shoulders (especially in men) and the width of your waist. If your intervertebral disc spaces are healthy, this “sagging” at the waist is no big deal: the ordinarily cylindrical disc spaces may have an asymmetric shape, but if they are tall enough, the discs fit without compression or damage. If, however, you are compressed at the start, the distortion in shape caused by your non-linear body shape juxtaposed on a linear sleeping surface could make the difference between sleep and restless tossing and turning, not to mention disc damage and nerve root inflammation. Similarly, since your spine is not linear in the axial plane, sleeping on your back also cause distortions in the shape of the spine. Again, if your spine has normal length, the distortions are well-accommodated; if your spine is compressed to begin with, the distortions could push you over the edge into pain, damage, and restless sleep.
Sitting on hard surfaces
Your ancestors were comfortable sitting on rocks and stumps, and you may well wonder why you aren’t. To understand their secret, observe the tone of the gluteal muscles of this Ubong tribe duo from Borneo. Those glutes aren’t just attractive – they’re highly functional. They serve as cushions for the bony parts underneath. Cushions that make sitting on almost any surface comfortable. Note that these people are not developing their gluteal tone from going to a gym; their tone is a result of them going about their daily activities with primal form and movement patterns.
The glutes are supposed to be the biggest muscles in the body – their bulk serves in many ways including powering many athletic moves, improving your balance, and making it comfortable for you to sit on hard surfaces. It will take some time, but you could build a Paleo posterior by adopting an ancestral gait – you want your glutes to engage with every step you take.
Here is a talk I did at the IHMC called “Walk This Way” that will teach you how to get started in engaging your glutes in gait.
Shoes go back a very long time. Some of our prehistoric ancestors had very sophisticated footwear, as evidenced by Otzi the Ice Man from approximately 5K years ago. Judging from the habits of modern day hunter gatherers, however, they also put in significant mileage going barefoot.
Barefooting is great if you have strong, well-formed feet with ample muscular padding and a type of gait that lands you softly with every footfall. However, if you have typical modern lower appendages that have been used more like prostheses than actual feet, you could face problems switching abruptly to walking barefoot. Start by waking barefoot just a few minutes a day while paying close attention to using your foot muscles with every step you walk – grabbing the ground, flicking the foot, propelling yourself forward. In this way you will develop foot muscles to protect your foot joints, and have enough padding underfoot to land you comfortably on longer walks. It’s entirely possible to build up the equivalent of a built-in shoe by waking up the layers of muscle on the underside of your feet!
Here is a video clip of an exercise that will teach you how to activate some of your foot muscles in preparation for using them in your gait.
Certainly, babies are made to be carried often and carried close, but have you tried carrying one them for the better part of a day? Or week? Or year? It’s clearly in their interest, but countless parents will report to you the pain and weariness around this endeavor. So how best to launch your baby into a wonderful life advantaged with the Paleo particulars of proximity, an audible parental heart beat, and breathing cues from a parent (babies don’t have a fully developed breathing center in their brains)?
I consider learning to carry a baby an advanced technique because it presupposes that the parent knows how to hip-hinge, knows how to use the “inner corset” muscles to support the extra weight of the baby, and has a good home base for the pelvis, spine, and shoulder blades. The best time to begin learning these posture practices is before you need to carry your baby. That way, when the baby comes and distracts you in a thousand ways, you will have some habits in place to better support your new charge. Fortunately, babies start out small and give you some chance to get stronger as they get bigger, but if the baseline is poor, the physical handling of a baby can be overwhelming. Spare yourself this all too common occurrence.
Here is a video clip of me demonstrating baby carrying at an AHS conference: