Fitbits On the Amazon

Fitbits On the Amazon

I was reminded of the importance of daily exercise when I read the article titled “Heart Healthy on the Amazon” (NY Times, April 6, 2017). An article by the Times regular writer on fitness Gretchen Reynolds summarized an anthropological study of the Tsimane people, a group of subsistence hunters and farmers living deep in the Amazon rain forest.  The Tsimane spend about seven hours daily in hunting, fishing, primitive farming, and gathering wild plants, resulting in movement equal to “roughly eight miles, or 17,000 steps, each day.”  Their diet was high carb, low fat and low protein.  Using blood samples and medical scans, the anthropologists teamed with cardiologists to test for levels of “atherosclerosis, a disease characterized by plaque build up inside a person’s cardiac arteries.”

The Tsimane scored less atherosclerosis than is typical in all previously studied Western societies.  They scored lower even than Japanese women, who had the lowest scores ever recorded, until the Tsimane study.  The main conclusion by the anthropologists:  for heart health, be active — “the Tsimane were in almost constant motion every day.”

The men of Zapotepec, Oaxaca with whom I did anthropological fieldwork in the 1970s, were not hunters and gatherers.  They were peasant farmers growing commercial crops –sesame seed, peanuts, mangoes and subsistence farming corn, peppers and squashes. The women did not gather nuts and berries; they were entrepreneurs — butchers, seamstresses, traders of dried fish and jewelry all over southern Mexico

While I  never directly measured the activity level of Zapotec farmers. I believe they matched the Tsimane because they had no motorized transport, no tractors, and no machines to pump water.  Each day they had to do everything through physical labor.  Fields were sometimes several kilometers from the village.  Men and boys would drive their small herds of cattle to and from the village every day.  The commercial crops were planted and harvested by hand.   I am guessing that 17,000 steps a day was nothing to those men.

My teacher and mentor Senecio was 73 years old when I first met him, the same age I am now.  Maybe five and a half feet tall, muscular from daily hours of chopping wood and weeds with a machete or wrestling a wooden plow through tough soil behind oxen for hours. The daily diet was tortillas with every meal, coffee and beans at breakfast.  For lunch in the fields, men ate fresh cheese, dried fish or shrimp and more tortillas.  The evening meal was a stew of pork or beef with potatoes, corn, and squash.  Not a bad diet and no one went hungry.

Humans lived like the Tsimane and the Zapotec for thousands of years.  Our species is genetically programmed to be highly active in order to survive.  The last few thousand years, since the inception of agriculture, have not changed that genetic reality.

Like many Americans I am sporting a Fitbit on my left wrist.  My goal is 12,000 steps a day which I did not meet only because it does not measure “steps” when I am out on my bicycle on a long training ride.  In two weeks I will be doing the bike across Kansas, a supported ride for 850 people, from Colorado to Missouri in one week for 514 miles.  The oldest registered rider is 84.  I’ll let you know how it goes, but I’ll say this much, I’d rather be on my bicycle for 7 to 8 hours a day in Kansas heat and wind than be knee deep in a corn field behind oxen pulling a wooden plow.

Senecio would undoubtedly question my sanity.  Perhaps you do as well, but the lesson of the Tsimane is:  keep moving until you can’t.

David Rymph


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