ARTHUR DE VANY
Arthur De Vany, author of the forthcoming book Evolutionary Fitness, maintains that short bursts of high intensity exercise are better than slow steady exercise.
Sprinters are much healthier and more in tune with our evolutionary nature than long distance runners, according to professor De Vany. He comes to these conclusions primarily by studying the activity patterns of our Paleolithic ancestors, who lived during the early Stone Age between 2-6 million and 10,000 years ago.
“I try to imagine the environment in which the human genome and human metabolism developed,” says De Vany.
He sees an evolutionary environment in which the vast majority of our ancestors survived by hunting wild animal, which would mean long periods of walking or jogging combined with sprints and often violent struggles — and gathering wild plants and other sources of food and water. That’s important because our genes still “think” we are hunters and gatherers.
Most scientists agree that our genetic makeup developed over millions of years — the pace of biological evolution is glacially slow–and is largely unchanged in the last 10,000 years. Genetically our bodies are virtually the same as they were 40,000 years ago.
As the authors of The Paleolithic Prescription (Harper & Row, 1988) told us, 100,000 generations of humans have lived as hunters and gatherers, 500 generations as farmers, and only 10 generations have lived in the industrial age. In terms of genetic makeup, we are still hunters and gatherers.
A reader and friend called my attention to professor De Vany’s evolutionaryfitness.com website several months ago (thanks Seth). A short time later I read about De Vany in Chef Jeff’s Weekly Health Update, and more recently I communicated with him by email.
Art De Vany is no armchair scientist. He’s a former professional baseball player, a game of high-intensity bursts separated by long lulls, and a lifetime fitness buff. At 6′ 1″ and 205 pounds, he’s a living example of what he preaches: “I know what really works,” says De Vany, “I’m 63, and I have seven percent body fat.”
ARTHUR DE VANY
Three years ago, based on body composition, strength, flexibility, reaction time and blood profile, a research institute rated his biological age at 32. That’s not surprising, says De Vany: “Hunter gatherers don’t age like Westerners do because they retain their metabolic fitness.” In short, De Vany is a modern-day version of Cro-Magnon man.
VARIETY IS CRUCIAL
De Vany’s program combines Darwinian thinking with his interest in chaos theory and complex systems. We’ll have to wait for the publication of his book for a complete explanation, but he believes that most modern exercise regimens are off the mark.
“Variety is crucial,” says De Vany. He believes that too much endurance training is harmful. “Chronic aerobic exercise overtrains the heart, reducing the chaotic variation in heart rate which is essential to health,” he says. “Boston Marathon participants have a high rate of brain cancer,” he said on the PBS program Closer to Truth. “Lots of joggers die of heart fibrillation,” he added.
Likewise, he believes that most weight training involves too many reps and sets, and too much routine. “High intensity, intermittent and brief training mixed with power walking and play is closer than aerobic exercise, high-volume weight training, or sedentism to how our ancestors lived,” says De Vany.
His general advice to both weight trainers and aerobic exercise enthusiasts is to cut duration and frequency, and increase intensity.
“Our muscle fiber composition reveals that we are adapted to extreme intensity of effort,” he explains.
De Vany says that contemporary hunter-gatherer societies rarely experience the diseases which plague modern man, such as hypertension, diabetes and heart disease.
“The primary objectives of any exercise and diet program must be to counter hyperinsulinemia (chronically elevated insulin) and hypoexertion (wasting of the body’s lean mass through inactivity) — these are the number one health risks in western society,” he says on his website. “Intermittent, intense exercise in brief spurts,” as he recommends, “promotes hormone drives that quench hyperinsulinemia and build muscle and bone density that keep you young and lean.”
Pending the completion of his book, Professor De Vany says the best explanation of Evolutionary Fitness training is an article by Australian author John Macgregor in the July 29, 2000 issue of the UK magazine New Scientist. That article combined with our personal communications provides more details of De Vany’s training philosophy.
For beginners, he recommends three sessions a week — upper body and lower body weight workouts focused on the large muscles and a third session aimed at improving overall fitness — lasting not more than 40 minutes. “For most people, a move from mechanistic training to adaptive training would consist primarily of cutting back on the number of sets and how often they work out,” says the professor.
De Vany himself generally does two weight sessions, upper body and lower body, totaling about an hour and a half a week. He gives his workouts a chaotic character with ascending weights and descending repetitions. For example, on squats a typical workout would be 15 warmup reps with the bar, 15 with 135, 8 with 225, and 3 to 5 with 305. He rests little between sets and never stops before producing “a good burn.” He never goes to failure, however.
In keeping with his preference for randomness, he’s not particular about the precise amount of weight on the bar; he uses the amount that’s easy to load quickly. “Most people spend too much time resting at the top of the squat and dramatically lower the intensity,” says De Vany. “That’s because they’re trying to do too much weight.” Interestingly, after racking the weight on the final set, he does vertical jumps “as high and as many” as he can. (Sure sounds like a violent struggle worthy of a caveman, doesn’t it?)
In addition to gym sessions, he adds a wide variety of other activities that vary randomly in intensity and duration. When I communicated with him, he was doing walk/sprint intervals in the hills ( “running up hills and then walking on”), Tabata-protocol type sprints and “stretching, lengthening workouts aimed at grace and symmetry.”
From time to time, he also does Rollerblading, bicycling, tennis, basketball, hitting softballs and trekking with a grandson on his shoulders.
De Vany takes grace and symmetry seriously. “I don’t want to sound egotistical about it,” says De Vany, “but I am the most symmetrical person in any gym I’ve been in. People remark on it all the time.” That’s important from the evolutionary standpoint. It’s Mother Nature’s way: survival of the fittest.
“Symmetry is a reliable evolutionary clue to health,” he says. “Tumors and pathologies produce gross asymmetries, and our love for symmetry reflects the reproductive success of our ancestors, who were sensitive to these cues.”
He strives for what he calls the X-look, which Macgregor describes as “a symmetrical balance of mass in the shoulder girdle, upper chest and back, the calves and lower quads.” That’s an evolutionary clue to the female of the species that good genes are present. De Vany says the X-look also makes men look taller, which women find attractive.
De Vany himself is an example of what he calls the “X-look.”
“Our ancestors were highly sensitive to clues of health and clear skin and the right waist/hip, shoulder/hip ratios are quite reliable indicators of health,” says De Vany. Research clearly shows that obesity is harmful, but most harmful when it is concentrated in the abdomen.
“Our genes knew this before research demonstrated it,” De Vany observes.