Most human societies moved away from the classic lifestyle of hunting and gathering thousands of years ago, but change doesn’t necessarily mean progress. The hunter-gatherer system, in which usually men hunt on foot for meat while women gather fruits and vegetables, has health benefits that modern civilization has a hard time matching.
A study in the American Journal of Human Biology suggests that hunter-gatherers get more exercise, putting them at a lower risk for heart disease. The small ethnic group called Hadza in northern Tanzania, for instance, spend more than two hours every day engaged in moderate to vigorous physical activity throughout their lives, and “we found no evidence of risk factors [like high blood pressure] for cardiovascular disease in this population.” In comparison, few Americans meet U.S. health department guidelines that recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week, even though studies show that exercise is strongly linked to health.
“The overarching hypothesis is that our bodies evolved within a highly active context, and that explains why physical activity seems to improve physiological health today,” co-author and University of Arizona anthropologist David Raichlen said in a statement. But American society has become more sedentary, and rates of high blood pressure and heart disease have increased.
The University of Arizona notes that diet may also play a role in the better heart health of the Hadza, and they may indeed be onto something with their combination of meat, fruits and vegetables. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends, based on a 2,000-calorie daily diet, that people eat about 2.5 cups of vegetables like beans, greens and carrots; 2 cups of fruit; 6 ounces of grains, at least half of which should be whole grains; 3 cups of dairy; and 5.5 ounces of protein foods like meat, nuts and eggs. Nutrition experts also recommend limiting sugar, fat and sodium intake. Despite these guidelines, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that the average American eats more than 12 percent of their daily calories from fast food restaurants, which are notorious for their poor nutrition values.
Modern hunter-gatherer societies are small, tightknit groups, which could potentially improve their mental health. In addition to having close companions who can detect mental or emotional issues and provide support during trying times, research shows that these relationships improve mental health. The Mayo Clinic notes that close friends can increase a person’s sense of belonging, their self-worth and happiness, as well as reduce stress. “Adults with strong social support have a reduced risk of many significant health problems, including depression, high blood pressure and an unhealthy body mass index. Studies have even found that older adults with a rich social life are likely to live longer than their peers with fewer connections.”
And existing mental health problems can often be exacerbated when the people with these conditions find themselves socially isolated, either due to the stigma associated with their conditions or due to their difficulty in connecting with other people.
Source: Wood BM, Raichlen DA, Pontzer H, et al. Physical activity patterns and biomarkers of cardiovascular disease risk in hunter-gatherers. American Journal of Human Biology. 2016.