10 Reasons You Should Eat, Move & Live Like Your Ancestors

Written by John J. Ratey, M.D.

If you want to be healthy, go wild. Humans, after all, are wild animals.

It’s not as odd as it sounds! In fact, throughout history, everyone was a wild human. The same forces that tamed wolves and made them dogs tamed humans. Let's call these forces "civilization," and yes, obvious benefits came with the deal.

But the downside of this progress is that civilization evolved a little faster than our genes, which remain almost wholly unchanged from our days in the wild. We are designed to be wild, and by living tame we make ourselves sick and unhappy.

But how do we modern humans correct this? It’s difficult to lay out a hard and fast checklist, but here are 10 steps that will get you headed along the right trail:

1. Get nutrition right.

Bad food is at the root of what ails us, linked to the entire sad litany of modern afflictions from obesity and diabetes to Alzheimer’s and even cancer. To eat wild, eliminate sugars in all forms, even fruit juices. Limit carbohydrates and eliminate those from grains and starchy foods like potatoes. Replace those calories by eating healthy fats, especially omega 3s from grass-fed beef, free-range chickens and their eggs, and wild-caught fish.

Eat a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables for a rich supply of micro-nutrients. Use nuts, seeds and fruit for snacks. Avoid fast-food or processed food. No trans fats. This is not a diet; this is simply the way you eat from now on, and you’re going to enjoy it. I do. Call it what you want — low-carb, paleo, ketogenic — but the important thing is you do it.

2. Be nimble.

The human brain is best nourished and developed through intricate, nimble, whole body movement. Wild exercise is not just about slimming or physical fitness. It's the best pathway to competence, well-being and longevity. Look for a form of exercise you like, something you can do easily and as part of your daily routine.

Look for activities that involve a variety of movements, full body, with lots of variability, like mountain trail running, CrossFit workouts, or games that exhaust you, but will keep you coming back. Exercise in nature is exercise squared. Feel the sun, but also the wind and the rain in your face. Slog through the snow. And especially look for exercise that involves other people. Move with your tribe. Look also to time-honored forms of movement, like dance, qigong, or tai chi. Yoga is great.

3. Sleep 8.5 hours out of every 24 on average.

The research is clear on this. The requirement does not vary from human to human. It does, however, vary from day to day. It’s OK to short yourself on sleep for a day or two (it may even be better) as long as it averages out. But in the long haul, skipping sleep will make you “sick, fat or stupid” to quote a favorite researcher on this topic.

4. Reconnect to nature.

The research says even small steps like a daily walk in the park or even a potted plant in your office show measurable benefits in surprising areas like improving your immune system or brain power. Better though to find time to wander in big, raw, wild nature.

5. Practice awareness.

Stop being mindless. Act like you are on the hunt. People will like you more, and you will be more present and successful. There are venerated and longstanding traditions of mindfulness meditation for a reason. These work to make us better in surprising ways, like improving immune response, but there are other ways to be mindful other than formal meditation. Find one that suits you.

6. Know that stress is both the creator and the destroyer.

Chronic, unrelenting stress, both mental and physical, is the destroyer. Intermittent stress is the creator and a vital tool for getting better. Follow stressful days with rest days. Growth only happens with stress and recovery and repair. In all areas — but especially with food, exercise, daily routines — seek out variability and variety.

7. Engage others.

Our brains are at their best and brightest when they are connected in meaningful ways to other people. Make a point of scheduling connections. Relationships make us happy and healthy.

8. Do not treat your body like a machine.

Understand that there are not separate systems in your body like a nervous system or digestive system, or even any real separation between mind and body. Everything is connected. You are not a machine or even a computer, but a complex living organism (actually, a collection of organisms, mostly microbes). You are not an individual so much as an ecosystem. For all these reasons, single factor, reductionist interventions don’t work in the long run.

9. Reset your body’s default settings and feedback loops.

As you get matters like nutrition and exercise right, your own sense of well-being will improve. This is your body and mind telling you that you are getting better. Learn to listen to it.

10. Find your own path.

You'll probably find some measures work better than others. This is your lever. Pay attention and the lever will lead to other measures. Remember, you are no longer putting out fires or whacking moles; you are exploring potential.

The process builds on itself. Take a step. Assess. Then take another. This is a process of exploration and discovery. It’s guided by rewards, guideposts that lead you to your own version of the wild life.

Ready to learn how to fight inflammation and address autoimmune disease through the power of food? Join our 5-Day Inflammation Video Summit with mindbodygreen’s top doctors.

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