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In today’s world, modern conveniences afford us many choices, not all of them good. Our bodies, designed to move, bend, bear weight, and even flee to save our lives, are no longer challenged with the need to move as our hunter-gatherer ancestors had to in order to survive and thrive. The sedentary lifestyle that we have adopted over the past 100 years has created a health crisis in its own right. Our interviewee, Darryl Edwards, who was confronted with a crisis of his own, offers us a novel pathway to wellness.
When Darryl and I first connected, I could tell immediately that he wholeheartedly embraces the concept of play in his life and in his work to inspire better health through movement. His Primal Play Method combines the benefits of functional fitness training with the element of fun, and his groundbreaking Animal Moves program includes exercises and activities inspired by the animal kingdom. Darryl’s philosophy has certainly resonated with the public. With his TEDx talk, several popular books, and a thriving fitness practice, Darryl reminds us that we need a new way to think about working out.
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Steven Schindler: You have a very inspiring personal story showing how adopting healthy diet and lifestyle practices turned your health around. Would you share this with us?
Darryl Edwards: My background was in investment banking technology. That meant working 16 to 18 hours a day, on average, sitting in front of a series of computer screens and helping to make the bank a lot of money. There were significant financial benefits, but it was a highly stressful environment that resulted in sleep deprivation and physical inactivity.
After an annual health check, I was told that I had chronic hypertension and was prediabetic – just one health marker away from full-blown type 2 diabetes. I also had a really poor lipid profile – high cholesterol and triglycerides – and my doctor said that I was at high risk of a heart attack or stroke within the next five years. The doctor recommended statins for the cholesterol-triglycerides problem, beta blockers for my blood pressure, and metformin to manage my blood sugar. At that time, I was only around 34 years old. I asked if there was anything I could do, other than the medications, and the doctor said, “Not really. Take the meds or face premature death.” I asked, “How long do I have to take them for?” The reply: “For the rest of your life.”
I recalled having read that exercise could help reduce blood pressure, so I said, “Let me at least try and get my blood pressure down.” My doctor agreed, and I was satisfied that I could spend a few months finding out if becoming more active would make a difference. Remarkably, within the first 30 to 60 days after I started to exercise, not only did my blood pressure decrease but my blood glucose levels started to come down, and my lipid profile improved.
So, exercise was the gateway for me, allowing me to improve my health status and biomarkers without taking any pharmaceuticals. Then I began to wonder what else I could do in addition to exercise. I tried a few different diets and settled on the one that made the most sense to me and seemed the most reasonable for me to adopt long term. I also started to question other aspects of my lifestyle. I became fascinated with exercise science, evolutionary biology, and evolutionary fitness – what our bodies were designed to do – and embraced that to the point where I’m able to communicate it to others.
I left banking in 2010. Although I went back for a short period, I realized my heart really wasn’t in it. Then I spent a few years trying to figure out what I wanted to do. At first, I wanted to cater to an elite clientele, providing training in fitness and sports – maybe just focusing on bankers who could afford to pay me for my time. Then I morphed into thinking about play and joy of movement. I wanted to enjoy movement more. I came to realize that I was having a love-hate relationship with exercise, and that there had to be more people like me who hated exercise, deep down, but were really trying to fall in love with it.
That’s how my Primal Play Method developed. It was created as a movement program that would be more inclusive and more considerate of the human condition, recognizing that exercise is difficult for humans because we were not designed to exercise. We were designed to move for a purpose, and that reason for movement has basically disappeared within the 21st century. There isn’t that primal instinctive need to move for survival – to hunt and gather foods, to build shelter, to do all the things for which movement was an imperative. So, Primal Play was designed to help us rediscover movement in ways that are engaging and fun.
FIND A WORKOUT PARTNER OR COMMUNITY
Ever notice how common it is to see two people going for a run together or two people working out together at the gym? That’s because a “fitness buddy” is one great way to inspire a successful workout. We are social creatures and thrive when working together with a common objective. At the very least, you will feel guilty if you decide to cancel a workout, so you will be more likely to stick to your regimen. Researchers at Indiana University recently studied the fitness habits of married couples and found that couples who worked out together had a much lower dropout rate (6.3%) than members of couples who worked out alone (43%).
If you don’t have a workout partner, the use of virtual online communities and groups also help with motivation and making exercise more fun. A randomized control trial published in 2010 by the Journal of Medical Internet Research looking at attrition rates for an online training program demonstrated a decreased drop-out rate when an internet community was added.
Steven: You sometimes use the term movement as medicine. Would you talk about this and tell us why so many people need this type of medicine today?
Darryl: There was a significant period of time where my only lifestyle intervention was exercise. Yet, even with a fairly conventional diet, I experienced a significant improvement in my health through movement alone. Not only did I improve my health markers across the board, but my body composition and physical capability were improving. I had never felt that my physicality was something to admire. I was a geek, a nerd. I was not a jock in any way, shape, or form. Suddenly, there were things I could do that I’d had no idea were possible for me.
I wanted to understand why I was receiving these benefits through exercise, so I began to study the research in exercise science. I found that the research is pretty robust around why exercise is superb for prevention of chronic lifestyle diseases. One headline fact is that there’s a 50% reduction in all-cause mortality for people who are physically active compared to those who are sedentary. Someone who does at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity physical activity, as well as resistance training twice a week – a baseline minimum that most public health bodies around the world recommend – have a 50% reduction in risk of death by any cause. That in itself is an incredible headline, and there have been decades’ worth of fairly solid evidence of the remarkable benefits of exercise for physical and mental health across a whole variety of conditions.
Eventually, I learned that physical activity can even improve things you wouldn’t necessarily expect it to have an influence over. For example, we’re often told that certain foods can reduce chronic inflammation. But how many of us are aware that exercise stimulates a lot of anti-inflammatory pathways after an initial pro-inflammatory phase of activity? The breakdown of muscle tissue that comes with physical activity releases hormones that have an anti-inflammatory effect. So, being physically active on a long-term basis actually leads to reduction in chronic inflammation, and our biomarkers will reflect that. For example, levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation, will decrease in those who are physically active over the long term. Levels of homocysteine, a risk marker for cardiovascular disease; and tumor necrosis factor, an inflammatory marker associated with increased cancer risk, will also decrease.
I took a deep dive into the research, exploring questions such as: Why is movement beneficial for us? What’s an optimal dose? That’s when I thought about the term movement as medicine, because the issue was bigger than just exercise. Exercise is optional. It’s not mandatory. We do, however, have to move. Even opening our eyes in the morning is movement. The movements that we don’t control – our heartbeat, breathing, and so forth – take place whether we like it or not. The problem is we don’t necessarily do much more than that.
That’s where we can make a decision. Do I stay in bed all day? Do I live my life from the comfort of my armchair? Or do I go about my day getting as many movement opportunities as possible? That doesn’t mean exercise. Exercise is just one small but hopefully significant part of our movement practice. That’s why my message is movement – rather than exercise – is medicine.
Steven: Exercise can be a bit of a loaded term. Some people look at it with guilt, others with judgment. Do you think we are encouraging fitness the wrong way with the language that we use?
Darryl: Totally, and it’s not actually our fault. As I mentioned, humans were not designed to exercise. Our prehistoric environment made it mandatory for movement to be a significant part of our day. If we didn’t move, where was the food going to come from? How were we going to build shelters and protect ourselves from the elements? How were we going to lift and carry the resources we needed back to where we resided? For all of those things, movement was mandatory – even down to our recreational activities, like celebrating an incredible day of hunting and feasting by dancing around the fire.
In the 21st century, we don’t have to do many of those things, and we forget that our bodies are designed to conserve energy. Our bodies are constantly saying, “Hold on a second. Do you know where the next meal is coming from? Think about the cost of burning those calories.” They are telling us that the reward from going out to obtain food – which is hopefully nutrient-dense enough to supply our energy needs – has to be greater than the cost of obtaining that food. Although we no longer have the evolutionary cues to go out and hunt, we still have cues telling us to slow down and take it easy.
Exercise was introduced a few thousand years ago as a concept because we were moving a lot less than we used to, and we were starting to feel the effects of that. We were getting sicker and weaker, so we created all these different exercises to mimic what we used to do. The first doctors of Western medicine, such as Hippocrates, would prescribe exercise as medicine. If you had a particular issue, you often needed to exercise as part of the remedy.
In addition to making up for a lack of physical activity, the introduction of exercise also enabled us to watch people who were great at movement. Athleticism became highly valued, and we became interested in spectating these incredible specimens of physical fitness. Today, if you look at the number of people who participate in fitness activities in comparison to those who watch athletic events, there’s a significant discrepancy. Billions of people around the world watch the Olympics and Paralympics every four years and marvel at how incredible humans are when it comes to movement. Yet, most of those people are sedentary for most of the day. They commute to and from work in an office job and marvel at what other humans can do physically.
Working out while in the sun can elevate your mood, mostly because exposure to the sun stimulates the release of feel-good hormones known as endorphins. And exercising outdoors can lead to increased energy and revitalization. According to researchers at Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry, exercising outdoors leads to feelings of energy, empowerment, and even enjoyment. You tend to work out longer and harder because you are enjoying it more.
There are two things that we use to sell exercise. One is that it’s good for your health, and the other – and much bigger selling point – is that you, too, can be an athlete with six-pack abs if you work out enough. It’s called a workout because it’s not meant to be enjoyable; it’s meant to be hard work. No pain, no gain. That’s what we’re constantly being bombarded with. We often have to pay people to shout at us to get through our workouts. “10 more reps. Do it!” At the same time, we’re made to feel not very good about ourselves – we’re too slow or we’re out of shape. For reasons such as these, 50% of people who sign up for gym memberships never show up again.
Participation in physical activity is at an all-time low. It’s even lower now because of the coronavirus crisis, with people staying at home. A lot of people are working from home, so there’s even less movement in their day, and the excitement of doing Zoom workouts has dissipated. So, the messaging is a problem, but more important – and this is why we will never be able to fix this issue with exercise – is the fact that exercise is just too bitter a pill to swallow.
Steven: I’m guessing that’s where play comes in. Play is important, not only for kids but for adults as well. How can adults incorporate play into our daily lives?
Darryl: Play resides in all of us – in all animals actually, but significantly within mammals. From the moment we’re born, play is a part of us. However, in humans, our culture suppresses the play state after the first few years of life, and we’re told to take life more seriously.
By the time we become adults, the play has been driven out of us. If we do play, it’s according to cultural norms. Gambling and going out drinking are acceptable forms of adult play, but those things don’t satisfy us in the truest sense. I feel that’s one of the reasons there is a significant amount of abuse and addiction associated with them.
Let’s look at the rest of the animal kingdom – a big cat, for example. Imagine that big cat is having a conversation with others. I can’t imagine that big cat exclaiming, “Hey, look at how much energy those little cubs have. I would love to move like a cub again.” I can’t envision him saying, “I haven’t got time to play. It’s all about work.” That big cat should be saying, “I am the most graceful, powerful, strong, capable specimen that I have ever been. When I was a young cub, I couldn’t wait to become the being I am now.”
Adult humans tend to think, “Look at the energy those kids have. They can run around and play. I wish I could do those things.” Well, hold on a second. I look at a five-year-old running, and I see that they’re uncoordinated. They’re still developing physically and exploring what their body is capable of. As an adult, I should be the most expressive and functionally able of any time in my life.
A big cat will still play. It will do all the enjoyable things it did as a young cub, although maybe not as much because it has other responsibilities. It will still play-chase, play-fight, and pretend to hunt.
As adult humans, we switch off that play gene, and we create very refined versions of movement. It’s similar to how we refine our foods, so that they aren’t nutrient dense and don’t truly satisfy. We’ve done the same sort of thing with exercise. We’ve refined it down to almost one-dimensional forms of movement. We’re missing out on this great expanse of movement, joy, and wonder. As a consequence, we can’t really express ourselves, and we’re not truly aware of our capabilities.
Steven: What about the benefits of play for children? How can adults encourage safe play in their kids today?
Darryl: Kids, if left to their own devices, will become playful. They know how to play. If parents stop telling their kids not to play, that will be a great start. The more we allow them to feel that it is normal to be playful, the better it’s going to be for them.
If children see their parents spending less time on their smartphones and other technology, that will help, too, because kids initially look to their parents for their image of the world. We can help them see that interacting with the real world, making real connections with other people, and being out in nature are far better and more interesting than what a tablet or smartphone tells them about the world. And there’s no point in just taking the tech from your kids and setting a curfew or time limit when you, as an adult, are doing whatever you want.
I remember buying my niece something called My First Laptop when she was about seven years old. This was an age-appropriate device, with lots of bells and whistles, that could help her learn to write, read, and do mathematics. When I gave it to her, I became upset because she spent so much time with the box – cutting it up and making figures – and ignored the device. After a while, I realized that computers are normal for her, but being able to cut up a piece of cardboard and use her imagination is not, so it’s exciting. That’s what we should be getting back to.
Parents should have less demanding expectations of their kids in order to let them have some sort of childhood – especially the type of childhood that many of us had. We had a significant amount of playtime in our childhoods, and we’ve completely eliminated that time for our kids.
In addition, parents today have a fear of allowing their children to have nothing to do, and it’s the same for us as adults. We’ve lost our ability to just do nothing. We need to be constantly stimulated. However, most adults can remember a time when we didn’t have that need, so we have a point of reference. For kids, there’s no point of reference. All they have ever known is wow, wow, wow – notifications, dopamine hits, and instant gratification all the time. Most adults remember how arduous it could be to get that dopamine hit. We had to paint that model airplane or build that Lego or Meccano set. Now, kids don’t have time for that. It’s a real problem.
Other problems involve helicopter and bulldozer parenting. We’re not preparing our children to assess risk. As a child, I had lots of outdoor play unsupervised, with no adults around. Most of the time, we kids would enjoy the fact that adults weren’t around because we were able to decide for ourselves: Am I going to climb this tree? Am I going to jump across the creek? If I fall into the creek, what’s going to happen to me? We were constantly navigating the world around us – observing, experiencing conflict, or asking for help. Today, all these building blocks of physical, emotional, social, and cognitive development are missing.
Many parents minimize the importance of play, saying, “What’s the benefit of climbing trees? Why put our child at risk of breaking an arm? Why put them at risk by not being able to see them all the time? There are too many dangers out there. And why should they learn to do something themselves when we can pay an adult to teach them? We can afford to have a coach teach them to play basketball at three years old.”
Of course, of that two hours of coaching, they might only play ball for a few minutes because most of the time they are standing there waiting to be told what to do and watching other kids go through drills. We’ve completely eliminated what makes those experiences really beneficial.
As parents, we have to consider what we can do to enable, as much as possible, the play environment that we had as kids. We can find that happy medium where our kids are safe, whether they are indoors or outdoors, but they are permitted to deal with some degree of risk on their own. If they have never been allowed to assess risk or make decisions for themselves, what’s going to happen to them the first time they encounter a potentially harmful situation? Protecting our kids actually means giving them a bit more freedom.
Steven: Let’s talk about your new exercise and movement program, Animal Moves. What inspired you to develop it?
Darryl: We are animals, although many humans like to forget that fact. As animals, we acquire certain physical capabilities through performing specific activities. If we don’t do those activities, we start to lose those abilities. We atrophy physically. We lose the neurons responsible for performing those activities, and we suffer as a result, both physically and mentally. So, I wanted to encourage people to move more like the animals we are.
In addition, we are one of very few animals that can mimic other animals. We have the capability to mimic the entire animal kingdom. Even if we can’t lift off the ground, we can pretend to fly. We can pretend that we’re monkeys and climb. We can jump like kangaroos or lift heavy things like elephants do. We can even pretend to be ants, which can lift a thousand times their body weight.
There is so much inspiration to be gained by observing the animal kingdom and moving like the other animals. Kids do that instinctively – not because they want to better condition themselves, but simply because it’s fun. If adults did more of that, we would have more endurance and stamina. We’d get stronger and improve our balance and coordination. We’d also become more expressive, more aware, and more in tune with the capabilities of our bodies.
If you have mobility issues or an injury, that’s not a limitation if you’re focusing on what you can do – what animals you can mimic and what you can visualize that is possible. Think about some of the greatest superhumans on the planet – people who are in wheelchairs or who have lost a limb and are doing things that most able-bodied people only wish they could do. If those individuals looked at limitations, they wouldn’t do anything. But they’re constantly focusing on what they can do to overcome any perceived limitations they’ve been told that they have.
In the past, I had this language of “You’re too old, you’re too weak, you’re not athletic” going on in my head. Now, I realize that I can still jump out of bed. I can still sprint when I’m running for the bus. I can still climb a tree – even though sometimes it doesn’t feel as easy as it did 10 years ago. I used to be able to easily run up that tree like a spider. Now it’s more like a deconditioned spider but, hey, I can still do it.
I’m inspired by what animals can do and how they continue to do those things for as long as possible. When dogs injure a leg, they’ll amble along. They’ll do everything they can, even if they are walking on three legs or limping. But when they need to run, they’ll start running. It’s instinctive. They need to move.
We, on the other hand, are constantly giving ourselves justification for not moving. We need to get back in touch with our animal selves and move more. We can move in an expressive, expansive way because there are all these different animals we can pretend to be. Then, if we embrace our inner child, we can use our imagination and visualization to make it even more fun.
Steven: Would you discuss good movement practices for older adults and people with physical injuries or disabilities?
Darryl: You have to think about your abilities, regardless of your age, condition, or skill level. Then you can do whatever they permit. It’s about progression, not absolute achievement.
Some older adults create limitations by comparing themselves to their younger selves or to other people’s expectations of them. They think, “I can’t do those things, so what’s the point of trying?” Instead, they might focus on: “What is possible for me to do today? What can I improve?”
Take balance, for example. If you say your balance is declining because you’re getting older and there’s not much you can do about it, I guarantee you that your balance is going to go—even sooner than you expected. But if you decide to work on your balance, and if you practice some balance drills, you will maintain what you have for longer and your balance will improve.
It’s a matter of changing your mindset. You may not be able to do everything you would like to, but you can certainly change your mindset. That’s a significant part of the Primal Play Method. I’ve had sessions with people in wheelchairs, people in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, who have said, “Oh, my goodness. I had no idea I could do this.”
Too many people today start to lose their strength before they should. Among our hunter- gatherer ancestors, those who made it to 60 or 70 years old looked like the 30- to 40-year-olds. There’s evidence of that right now. We don’t have to rely on archaeological records or anthropology. We can see modern-day hunter-gatherer tribes that have lived the same way for 30,000 or 40,000 years. The Khaosan of sub-Saharan Africa is one such tribe.
You can watch documentaries where a Westerner goes out on a hunt with hunter-gatherers. That person might be an Ironman triathlete, and they won’t be able to keep up with the walking pace of the tribespeople. Meanwhile, the tribespeople will be doing amazing feats of walking, of running, and of strength. Then the elder of the tribe will be interviewed, and that person will be about 70 years old in remarkable condition, still doing everything that is demanded of the younger members.
That demonstrates to us that we shouldn’t be having the accelerated decline people are experiencing today in Western culture. We can actually maintain a significant amount of our strength, power, endurance, and physical function – and, by doing so, we can stave off many of those diseases of aging that we’re concerned about.
I want to stress both why we need movement as medicine and why it needs to be sustainable for life. It’s never too late to utilize it. The more consistent we are with our practice and the more varied it is, the greater the benefit will be.
Steven: Improving our diet can also help us to maintain our health and vitality. Would you tell us a little about the nutritional practices that you recommend?
Darryl: I used to be pretty dogmatic about my nutritional practice, but now I basically follow an ancestral template, which means I pay homage to evolutionary biology. I try to follow what I believe humans should be eating. There’s a lot of disagreement as to what that is, but there’s basically no disagreement about avoiding artificial and processed foods as much as possible. When selecting specific foods, I think about nutrient density. How healthful is that food going to be for me? How complete and wholesome is it? I also consider the source of that food. Is it organic? Is the meat grassfed and grass finished? I choose food from local sources, if possible, because it’s going to be fresher and it’s going to be seasonal. There are also other issues at play, such as access and affordability, but those are probably my basic pillars of nutrition.
I went through a phase of thinking I could eat as much as I wanted, as long as the food had the right nutritional profile, but now I know that I also need to be mindful about how much I’m consuming. Certainly, I don’t think it’s part of our human makeup to be gluttonous. I do think part of our makeup is to eat to satiety and to be grateful for the food that we have and mindful of what’s hopefully coming next.
Steven: Reflecting upon your experience with the doctor who could offer no options other than medication, do you think one of our problems today is that our doctors don’t often guide us on a journey to health that includes fitness and nutrition?
Darryl: I think part of that is the expectation of patients. People tend to want to be fixed when they see their doctor. They know there are drugs available for certain conditions, and they want help now. So, I can’t lay all the blame on doctors. Many of their patients may not want to be told, “If you just changed your diet and lifestyle, you could probably avoid taking these drugs.” However, there are increasing numbers of doctors today who are likely to have that conversation and who are a bit more savvy about nutrition and physical activity than in the past.
So, I think the world is getting better. Patients are becoming more aware of the power of food, movement, and lifestyle in general. Vitamin D is now a layperson’s topic. People didn’t mention it 10 years ago, but now we’re hearing about it all the time. These things are relatively commonplace topics today, and I think many patients are asking their doctors similar questions about them. But I can’t expect a general practitioner to be a nutritionist, physical therapist, exercise instructor, sleep hygiene specialist, and stress management counselor. If they give us the idea that there’s something we can do other than just taking a pill, I think that’s as much as we can expect from them.
We can, however, make the best decisions about our treatment by questioning our doctors. For example, we can ask, “Can you tell me about the side effects of these meds? What’s the worst case scenario?” Then, based on their answers, we might look into whether there is something else we can do. It’s important to ask the same questions of the nutrition or physical exercise expert as well. What are the downsides of this regimen? What if it doesn’t work? Even in the alternative medicine field, we sometimes fall prey to the silver bullet approach: This one thing will cure everything.
We need to find and integrate all of the best tools available to us, including the best of modern medicine. I have known people living incredibly healthy lifestyles who still succumbed to certain conditions, so I can’t say that lifestyle is the only thing that matters. If I have a condition at some point in the future where I need to be acutely treated, I’m not going to rely solely on improving my diet and doing more exercise. I’ll have to consider whether modern medicine is going to make my life easier and be a good adjunct to my lifestyle practices.
Steven: How can we best make use of our acquired knowledge about nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle?
Darryl: I’ll try to put it into one or three sentences. If we avoid convenience, we are more likely to make healthier lifestyle decisions. For example, if we avoid the convenience of fast food and processed foods, and we have to spend time sourcing and preparing our meals, we’re going to make healthier food choices.
If I choose the convenience of sitting down all day, I can work from my chair. For the sake of convenience, I can take an elevator rather than the stairs or drive my car on a two-minute journey rather than walking. But if I go for convenience, I’m going to be more sedentary. If I don’t want to obey the 24-hour clock because I can keep the lights on all night, I can work as much as I can. It’s convenient, but I’m going to suffer the consequences of not listening to my body saying, “Darryl, you’re tired. Get to sleep.”
So, two words would be “avoid convenience.” In doing so, you have to become more mindful about the decisions you make. If you pause and take a breath first, you’re likely to make healthier decisions across all the lifestyle pillars – nutrition, movement, sleep, and all the other things that we know contribute to good health.
The inset boxes that accompany this article are excerpted from “5 Ways to Have Fun with Fitness,” at PrimalPlay.com. Photographs appear courtesy of Darryl Edwards.
Darryl Edwards is a movement coach and founder of the Primal Play Method™, which fuses evolutionary biology with the science of physical activity and play psychology. Darryl is also author of the best-selling book Animal Moves and has released a range of fun fitness cards called the Animal Moves Decks. He regularly presents as a keynote speaker at academic, clinical, health promotion, and corporate events worldwide. His April 2019 TEDx talk, “Why Working Out Isn’t Working Out,” has been viewed over 700,000 times. Darryl resides in London, England, and writes about living a healthy, playful lifestyle at PrimalPlay.com.
Steven Schindler is the executive director of Price-Pottenger. A nonprofit strategist and business management expert, Steven has an abiding interest in the relationship between physical fitness, health, and overall well-being.
Published in the Price-Pottenger Journal of Health and Healing
Fall 2020 | Volume 44, Number 3
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