Ancestral Levers


Humans are adaptation machines.

Our bodies are unique to most animal species in that we have a series of systems that allow us to adapt to a wide variety of environments.

Hot, cold. Not a lot of food, too much food. Low stress, high stress. Low physical activity, high physical activity…

You get the picture.

The thing that makes us totally unique among biological organisms is how our brains can speed up (or slow down) this adaptation. We do this by communication, learning, technology, and changing our physical environment.

But there are drawbacks to these abilities to adapt.

Most of our physical adaptation abilities are geared more toward our ancient past. For thousands of years, we had very little control of our environment. Our genes and physiology have been primed for survival in an uncertain and inhospitable landscape.

The adaptations that saved our ancestor’s lives in the past can wreak havoc in our modern society.

  • Ancestral Legacy: Not waste energy because food is scarce and future challenges uncertain.
  • Modern Complication: Not getting outside and not being physically active.

  • Ancestral Legacy: Bodies used to limited food choices based on location and seasonality.
  • Modern Complication: Intense, hyper-palatable, calorically dense, foods available at all hours.

  • Ancestral Legacy: Close family ties and small tribe/town of well-connected individuals.
  • Modern Complication: Loose family & friend ties to far larger groups of people. The ability to ‘disconnect’ and distract oneself with media (streaming, social media, games, etc.)

  • Ancestral Legacy: Staying up well after sunset just meant more work gathering firewood. Our bodies want to sleep during the dark and be woken up by sunlight.
  • Modern Complication: Electric lights and modern devices confuse our bodies so we have a harder time falling asleep, and get worse sleep when we use these before bed or have ‘light contamination’ in our sleeping areas.

The list goes on and on.

One of the keys to a healthy and long life is to figure out what Ancestral Legacy is affecting you and your biology the most and finding a way to work with it (and not against it). You can’t fight your biology.

Two common themes:

No Desire To ‘Exercise’ Or ‘Workout’

Possible solutions to this are:

  1. Find someone to workout with. The added social benefit and accountability can make all the difference.
  2. Make it fun. Find an activity you enjoy doing. Biking, playing some sport or game, listen to audiobooks/podcasts, etc. Avoid just trying to ‘distract’ yourself, look for physical activities that are actually ‘fun’ to you.
  3. Figure out a way to have measurable progress. Visual changes to the body take time and they aren’t easily recognized because of the daily incremental changes. Track changes in strength, reps, duration, skill development, number of sessions completed, etc.
  4. Make it routine. Set up your environment and your schedule so you don’t have a choice to be in-active. Start small, and incrementally make it harder. Start walking the dog once a day for 15 min. Then 30 min. Then twice a day for 30 min. Then get a weight vest. Then do some Push-Ups and Squats in the middle of the walk… you get the idea. Set up a reward system that forces you to do the thing before enjoying the reward.

Struggle with Food Choices

The word “Diet” is here to stay, but ultimately health and body composition come down to ‘food choices’. Possible solutions to helping you with food choices are:

  1. Understand your body. Every person’s physiology is different. You need to figure out what foods you may be sensitive to (ones that make you feel unwell). What foods you can eat with abandon and not suffer side effects. And what situations trigger cravings for foods you should avoid.
  2. Find the healthy foods you enjoy. There are foods that you should be eating regularly that you can look forward to eating. You need to figure out where to buy it or how to make it. Then stock up on these foods so they far outweigh the foods you should be avoiding. Hint: usually this means having tons of vegetables and healthy meats available.
  3. Come up with ‘rules’ that work for you. Complete avoidance usually leads to frustration and/or binges. Setting up some ‘ground rules’ can help you make progress long term without having to exert too much willpower. For example, if you know you are going to enjoy a bunch of ‘less healthy’ foods this weekend. Make the rule that you are going to eat extra healthy the day before, the morning of and the day after. And you aren’t going to hold yourself back or feel guilty during the ‘fun time’. Everyone’s rules will be different, so expect some experimentation and refinement over time.
  4. Avoid temptation by changing your ‘food landscape’. Fill the refrigerator with healthy options. Prepare meals ahead of time to prevent snacking on the easy-and-usually-less-healthy stuff. Place your ‘treats’ somewhere you can’t see them and where they are hard to get. Or, better yet, only buy enough for one or two servings so once they are gone, they are gone for good.

Pulling the Right Ancestral Levers

You are unique. Your biology, your lifestyle, your tastes… Each of these things will change which ‘Ancestral Levers’ you might want to fiddle with.

Many people struggle because they are pulling on a lever that isn’t right for them. Wasting their energy when there could be an easier lever to pull that will give better results.

Think about your own lifestyle and habits. What Modern Complications are you suffering the most from, and what Ancestral Lever can you pull to get you in line with your biology?

Thrive on.


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I’ve got good news and bad news.

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