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The Hormetic Elements: Finding Effective Doses of Nature’s Stressors

by PFX Team
Home/Blog/Protect Your Mental Wellbeing During the COVID-19 Pandemic


“Physical education cannot be done in your room or in a closed gym…”

– Georges Hébert, founder of la Méthode Naturelle

Pharmacological research is increasingly studying exercise as an effective remedy for a variety of ailments from aging to autoimmune disease. 

Hormesis is the name of an effect – which applies equally to medicine and fitness – whereby a bodily stressor may be harmful past a certain dose but healthy within a lower range. Lift heavy weights, get stronger. Lift too much, get injured.

Most modern sedentary people should be lifting more, but the key to optimal fitness is finding your safe “hormetic zone” of exercise: the dose that triggers an adaptation without damaging the under-utilized tissue, softened by the comforts of modernity.

How to Find the Healthy Dose of Natural Stressors

Outside the weight room, hormetic stressors abound in nature. Their benefits can multiply when combined via outdoor “natural movement.” Georges Hébert, the French naval officer and creator of the “Natural Method”, had his recruits conduct open-air exercise with minimal clothing, for example, to enhance blood flow to the skin surface and build resilient soldiers. 

Other examples besides cool outdoor air include:

True Fitness Starts With The Elements

Hébert’s legacy lives on in the form of MovNat and other “primal” fitness programs, but there is still a great deal of room to explore nature’s most powerful hormesis “hacks.”

I’ve compiled a concise guide, that lays out step-by-step how to get stronger in nature, by nature, and through nature – all without getting hurt. If you’re willing to embrace some stress and discomfort in the pursuit of true fitness, you can learn to find your optimal stress zone from the guide.

Here’s a quick summary of the theoretical rationale for gradually reintroducing the “hormetic elements.”

EARTH – It’s not about the shoes.

Remember “shock-absorbing” shoes? I predict these will go down in history as a major marketing scam, and a dangerous one at that. 

Why? Think of how the new and “improved” football helmets have led to more brain damage – cushioning allows bigger impacts to go unnoticed until serious injuries set in.

Going barefoot provides feedback from the ground which promotes better walking and running form. It adds positive stress in quantities that our feet and legs evolved to handle while preventing long-term injuries. 

Here are four reasons why:

  1. Bones strengthen under compression.
  2. Foot position adapts to the terrain when in direct contact. 
  3. The 200,000 nerves in our feet help us to “see” the ground (like a dolphin sees with sonar) 
  4. We adjust our stride to minimize unnatural torque – the signal that we are damaging our tendons, joints, and ligaments.

Takeaway: Minimalist shoes can be a great way to introduce a smaller hormetic stress en route to going completely barefoot.

AIR – Less (clothing) is more.

Benjamin Franklin attributed his superhuman productivity in part to his daily naked calisthenics routine, combining morning chores with “air baths” to get the blood flowing.

Science now confirms that exposure to cool air improves circulation, reduces oxidation, and eliminates toxins from the bloodstream.

Lastly, it works out the blood vessels – making them more flexible to deliver blood when and where it is needed most. 

In his Practical Guide to Physical Education, Georges Hébert says that, “One obtains in this fashion a very rapid endurance of the skin, and an extraordinary ability to adapt to all the brusque changes of temperature.”

Soldiers wore nothing but boxer shorts as part of la méthode naturelle (the “natural method”) of physical fitness and the precursor to MovNat

While it is cold and uncomfortable at first, wearing fewer clothes induces more vigorous exercise to warm up more quickly. 

Takeaway: Skip the latest “wicking technology” and try going shirtless or in just a sports bra for women. 

WATER – Mind Over Matter

Like airbathing, cold water exposure trains your blood vessels to be more flexible.

There’s no need for an expensive cryotherapy session. If you don’t live near a natural source of cold water (i.e., lakes, oceans, streams), a cold shower, or ice-water bath is more than enough to induce a cascade of health benefits, including:

Takeaway: Work up to longer showers/baths/plunges as your body adapts. The Wim Hof Method of breathing quickens the adaptation and controls the body’s natural resistance to the cold.

FIRE – Ditch the Sunscreen: Building a Solar Callous.

In the extreme, solar radiation can cause cancer, but more people in northern latitudes are dying from too little sun than too much.

A report from the World Health Organization shows that you are 80 times more likely to die from diseases related to underexposure to UV than overexposure.

In pharmacological terms, if sun were a drug, most people are on the wrong side of the hormetic dose-response function. 

More sunshine correlates with feel-good serotonin release, while bright light regulates the circadian rhythm and promotes melatonin production – helping you sleep when the sun sets.

While bright light therapy can be delivered by special equipment indoors, there’s no substitute for the massive blazing ball of fire orbiting 93 million miles away from the earth.

Of course, going outside comes with risks –  such as sunburn for those with pale skin. Just like the other hormetic stressors explored in this post, the key is to adapt slowly.

Takeaway: Early morning sunlight helps the pale build a “solar callous” which mitigates the harsher rays of the noonday sun. The thicker (or darker) the callous, the more of the sun you can handle later in the day.

If you want to learn more and get a step-by-step guide to transitioning, I’ll email you the guide for free. I’m confident you’ll find at least one of the hormetic elements to be a game-changer in your fitness routine.


The Paleo movement incorporates several different optimizing perspectives for helping you improve your health, all based on the latest science. Everyone is different. We want to support you in understanding your unique genetic makeup, symptoms and health goals so you can choose the path that is right for you.

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