Ancestry and Exercise - Fit Farm at Rock Springs

We are Still Hunter-Gatherers: Ancestry and Exercise

Rock Springs Retreat Center / September 6, 2023 / Leslie Dunn / 1

I visited a girlfriend at her home to catch up. While talking about a new store that opened in our town, she suddenly got an uncharacteristic sheepish look on her face and abruptly changed the subject. “I’ve kept a secret from Josh.”

Wide-eyed, I asked, “What is it?”

She lowered her voice as though her husband could somehow hear her even though he was at work. “I keep buying from the shopping channel.”

“A lot?”

“A lot,” she said. “It’s how much I buy and what I buy.” She got quiet, and added, “Well, it is how much and what.” She glanced out the window.

I could see the concern on her face and guessed it was about Josh again. “It’s pretty bad, isn’t it?”

Instead of answering, she said, “C’mon, I’ll show you.” She led me to her bedroom, got down on her hands and knees and lifted the part of the duvet overhanging the edge of the bed. “See?”

I got down and I saw. Underneath their bed looked like the inside of Santa’s sleigh. Boxes of multiple shapes and sizes were crammed the width and length of the bed. “What’s in all these boxes?”

She sighed and shifted from her knees to sit. “Everything,” which told me nothing. I did the puppy head tilt. “Could you be a little more specific?”

“Kitchenware, sheets, dolls…”

I interrupted her. “Dolls?”

She squinched up her face like I’d stuck her with a pin. She shook her head. “I can’t help myself. We had a big argument when Josh found one of my stashes in the back of the coat closet…”

Again, I interrupted. “One of them? How many do you have?”

While she started explaining how many and where, my mind drifted to an article I’d read, Organic Fitness: Physical Activity Consistent with Our Hunter-Gatherer Heritage from the ResearchGate website:

…women…walking sometimes for hours to find, retrieve, and carry home items such as food, water, and wood. Women would also help to carry butchered game back to camp. These foraging efforts often demanded digging, climbing, bending, and stretching and frequently involved carrying heavy loads back to camp. Other routine female responsibilities included shelter construction and butchering.

“You’re doing what our ancestors predisposed you to do.”

“What’s that, shop?” She smiled, which was my goal.

“Yes. Our female ancestors were ‘Gatherers.’ Women foraged for nuts and berries and carried water home. She ‘shopped’ for her home’s necessities while men hunted.”

“I think I’ve gotten a little too in touch with my Gatherer side.”

“Well, you always did have a tendency to do things 110%. Remember when…” and we went down the memory path.

Our Ancestral Instincts

There exists a direct correlation between our female ancestor’s gathering and our need to shop. When we head out to the pavement jungle and sort through vegetables, fruit and meat looking for the freshest and best that we can find, if we could step back thousands of years, we’d see a woman trekking through the woods in search of the freshest and best nuts and berries that she can find. We scour stores and the internet for items to enhance, beautify and maintain our homes. Our collective female ancestors collected grasses for soft sleeping mats and making food storage items. She stockpiled wood for cooking and heat. Considering that survival of the fittest meant teamwork, men, too, continue expressing the attribute that their ancestors needed to survive. Although there are plenty of women hunters, when we say the word, “hunter,” most of us picture men out in the woods in camo stalking their prey.

While driving home, I mentally took my observation to the fitness center to consider the differences between how women worked out vs men and that led to researching the subject after I got home. It’s against the scientific method to approach a subject with a predetermined idea and look for facts to support it; instead, facts should lead to a hypothesis. Since I’m not constrained to the scientific method, I blasted ahead researching facts to support my theory that, despite thousands of years between our ancestors and us, our male and female instincts are alive and well in determining not only what exercises we prefer but also the physiological benefits and constraints of exercise based on our gender.

What does that look like in a fitness center? Is there a difference between the exercise needs, limits and successes of men and women?


The Differences Between the Effect of Exercise on Men and Women

Working from inside out, meaning the physiological to the physical, and bearing in mind those same attributes necessary to the survival of our ancestors, here are some of the differences between the effect of exercise on men and women.

Men’s bodies withstand bursts of high intensity exercise better than women. That makes sense since force and speed were necessities for successful hunts. The area of their brain that controls movement – motor cortex – is larger than that of women even after adjusting for the size difference between sexes. This gives them a predisposition for high intensity work outs but also bursts of speed like sprinting. Women, on the other hand, outperform men at endurance and flexibility, like marathons and yoga. Again, returning to the female ancestor, she had to walk distances to find food and home necessities; as mentioned above, retrieving those items required stretching, digging, climbing and bending.  Although it can be argued that both sexes can be trained into the other’s strengths, which is true, this article focuses on basic predispositions.

Women’s bodies are outfitted with more fat than that of men for a couple reasons – childbearing and to maintain a healthy flow of female hormones. How does this relate to exercise? The good news is that while men burn more carbs during workouts, women burn more fat. Relating that to men/sprinters, women/endurance, the breakdown of carbs gives sprinters a fast source of high-level energy and fat breakdown provides a simmering pot of fuel for endurance.

According to Menno Henselmans, a scientist, online physique coach and international public speaker, another adaptation that enables women’s endurance lies deep inside the vasculature system. During long workouts, women’s arterial pressure remains lower than that of men. Arteries carry oxygenated blood away from the heart and lungs to the body. Think of it as a soaker hose vs a garden hose. The soaker hose’s slow flow provides a greater amount of water to each plant. Women’s lower arterial pressure enables a greater absorption rate of the oxygen-rich blood throughout the organs and brain. Another benefit of lower arterial pressure is a female’s faster recovery time post-workout. Men need a longer time to recover after exercising.

The bottom line: Our ancestors endowed men’s bodies with a greater capability for high intensity, fast-paced, carb-burning workout than women whose ancestors provided physiology better designed for long, slower, fat-burning workouts. And the next time that you have a hankering to shop, ladies, blame it on your ancestors.

This insightful article was authored by guest writer Leslie Dunn, an accomplished writer whose words have graced the pages of publications like "Chicken Soup for the Soul," "Nashville Parent Magazine," "Moody Monthly," and "Redbook Magazine," among many others. She's also a frequent contributor for the "Gainesville Sun," "Life & Times," and the "Las Vegas Review Journal." Leslie's captivating narratives can be found on her site, The Slice.