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How Obstacle Races and Competitions Tap Into Our Ancestral Past

By Stephanie Vuolo, B.A.
January 27, 2015
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An evolution in optimal exercise is taking place, inspired by how our primitive ancestors moved. In 2013, nearly 3.4 million people participated in an obstacle race, and in 2014 these races generated close to $362 million in registration revenue.1 Similarly, in 2014 over 209,000 people signed up for the CrossFit Games Open, a 5-week qualifier to find the fittest person on Earth.2 Their appeal can be linked to desire to focus on functional forms of fitness, meaning performing movements that have implications to improve the ability to engage fully in daily activities, especially as we age.3,4

These types of competitions require endurance, speed, strength and agility to swing on ropes, scramble over walls, swim through mud, to lift heavy objects, and navigate other barriers. Physical training with such obstacles has been shown to improve overall fitness levels and body composition.5 Every part of the body is needed to complete the activities, as well as willpower to push through the unexpected and uncomfortable. Think swimming through mud.

If you repeat the same workout routine each time you go to the gym, it may be time to add tasks that test both your mind and your body. Hunter-gathers were constantly challenged with unexpected obstacles, such as crossing water or climbing hills and boulders to procure food and water.6 Their movements were constantly varied, with endurance and peak strength effort activities, which they alternated with adequate rest.7

These conditions cannot be replicated by routine workouts, such as walking on a no-incline treadmill for 45 minutes while watching a television screen and doing the same weight machine circuit three times a week. Modern exercise patterns (or lack thereof) have been linked to most chronic diseases8 and to repetitive injuries to joints and muscles.9

What additional benefits can you experience through obstacle and CrossFit-style competitions?

They offer a motivation to push through the ideas you may have about your body’s limitations, and they can tap into the human drive to move for a reason 10 – in this case to complete the complex tasks offered by the competition. Further, they require your brain to work in order to problem solve and strategize, in a way that can be argued mimics the mental skills of hunter- gatherers. 11,12

These sports also provide a social aspect to movement that is lacking from most traditional gym programs. Hunter-gathers were required to work together as a social unit in order to thrive.13 This involved collaboration for hunting wild game, butchering the animal, as well as foraging collectively to reap the largest and most varied foods.14 Every person in a mud run participates as a team and collaborates to conquer the barriers presented.15

While competitions offered through CrossFit, Spartan Race, and Tough Mudders offer many benefits to mimic hunter gather challenges, you can still improve your fitness level by mixing up how you exercise on a regular basis. Use activities you already like, such as walking or weight lifting, and make small adjustments in how you perform them. For example, add more hills or speed intervals to your walk or vary the number of sets and repetitions you do when lifting heavy objects. Be open to participate in new activities to challenge yourself outside of both your physical and mental comfort zone, especially those that are outdoors as it has been linked to improved mental wellbeing.16 Any variety you incorporate into how you move your body on a regular basis can have a big, lasting impact on your overall fitness level.

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[1] Available at: // . Accessed on January 20, 2015.

[2] Available at: // Accessed on January 20, 2015.

[3] Thompson, Christian J., Karen Myers Cobb, and John Blackwell. "Functional training improves club head speed and functional fitness in older golfers." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 21.1 (2007): 131-137.

[4] Suomi, Rory, and Douglas Collier. "Effects of arthritis exercise programs on functional fitness and perceived activities of daily living measures in older adults with arthritis." Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation 84.11 (2003): 1589-1594.

[5] Frykman, P. N., E. A. Harman, and C. E. Pandorf. Correlates of obstacle course performance among female soldiers carrying two different loads. Army research Inst of Environmental Medicine Natick MA, 2001.

[6] Cordain, Loren, R. W. Gotshall, and S. Boyd Eaton. "Physical activity, energy expenditure and fitness: an evolutionary perspective." International journal of sports medicine 19.05 (1998): 328-335.

[7] Åstrand PO. J. B. Wolffe Memorial Lecture. Why exercise? Med Sci Sports Exerc 24: 153-162, 1992.

[8] Chakravarthy, Manu V., and Frank W. Booth. "Eating, exercise, and “thrifty” genotypes: connecting the dots toward an evolutionary understanding of modern chronic diseases." Journal of Applied Physiology 96.1 (2004): 3-10.

[9] Carpenter, James E., et al. "The effects of overuse combined with intrinsic or extrinsic alterations in an animal model of rotator cuff tendinosis." The American journal of sports medicine 26.6 (1998): 801-807.

[10] Roberts, Glyn C., Darren C. Treasure, and David E. Conroy. "Understanding the dynamics of motivation in sport and physical activity: An achievement goal interpretation." Handbook of Sport Psychology, Third Edition (2007): 1-30.

[11] Binford, Lewis R. "Willow smoke and dogs' tails: hunter-gatherer settlement systems and archaeological site formation." American antiquity (1980): 4-20.

[12] Price, T. Douglas, and James A. Brown. "Aspects of hunter-gatherer complexity." Prehistoric hunter-gatherers: The emergence of cultural complexity(1985): 3-20.

[13] Apicella, Coren L., et al. "Social networks and cooperation in hunter-gatherers."Nature 481.7382 (2012): 497-501.

[14] Gurven M. “To give and give not: the behavioral ecology of human food transfers.” Behav. Brain Sci. 27, (2004 ): 543–559.

[15] Wing, Rena R., and Robert W. Jeffery. "Benefits of recruiting participants with friends and increasing social support for weight loss and maintenance." Journal of consulting and clinical psychology 67.1 (1999): 132.

[16] Thompson Coon, J., et al. "Does participating in physical activity in outdoor natural environments have a greater effect on physical and mental wellbeing than physical activity indoors? A systematic review." Environmental science & technology 45.5 (2011): 1761-1772.

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