How Modern Life Knocks Our Biology out of Sync

Angelena Iglesia

Bear-hugging somebody you’ve never met is not natural, regardless of social-distancing rules. Certainly not in London, where you don’t even make eye contact with strangers. Yet, a little while before lockdown, Tony Riddle, also known as “the Natural Life-Stylist”, greets me open-armed outside Highgate Men’s Pond. The rising sun is […]

Bear-hugging somebody you’ve never met is not natural, regardless of social-distancing rules. Certainly not in London, where you don’t even make eye contact with strangers. Yet, a little while before lockdown, Tony Riddle, also known as “the Natural Life-Stylist”, greets me open-armed outside Highgate Men’s Pond. The rising sun is glinting orange off the frost-covered grass. I’m glad of the body heat.

I’m no stranger to ice baths and cryotherapy, which have become cool in fitness circles. Still, I’m apprehensive. The regulars at the pond are doubtless bemused by the sight of us sitting in the open-air changing area, inhaling and exhaling in time with a meditation app in order to “down-regulate” our systems.

I can’t help but notice that Riddle is in terrific nick for a 45-year-old. In September last year, to raise money for green causes, he ran the length of the UK from Lands’ End to John O’Groats in 30 days, which is equivalent to more than a marathon per day. And he did it barefoot. Despite running on tarmac – and once, in Wigan, glass fragments – his feet, which went up two sizes from hypertrophy, are remarkably smooth.

Under Riddle’s instruction, I descend the ladder until all but my head is submerged, suppressing my gasps by following the breathing pattern that we practised. This is what Riddle calls a “micro-hit of adversity”, and its aim is to rebalance my disproportionate response to perceived threats, such as an impending work deadline, or the prospect of an icy dip – which, after the initial shock, turns out not to be so bad. While Riddle dips, I drip-dry, newly appreciative of the sun, which has now risen, and the natural surroundings that only minutes ago seemed hostile. I’m buzzing with endorphins.

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Riddle’s other job title is “human rewilding coach”, though he says that the term raises people’s eyebrows – or hackles. “They can’t understand why they’d want to become wild,” he says. Hence his rebranding as the marginally less puzzling Natural Life-Stylist. Riddle used to work for the retreat company Wild Fitness, which disparagingly referred to “zoo humans”. He cites the statistics that 83% of Brits live in cities and spend 90% of their time indoors. “We are innately wild, connected and empowered beings,” his website reads. “It’s time to rediscover your human potential.”

human rewilding

Finding Beast Mode

The term “rewilding” originated in the US in the 1980s, explains Nathalie Pettorelli, a senior research fellow at the Zoological Society of London. It was “put back into the light” in 2013 by British environmentalist George Monbiot’s book Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life. There are different approaches but, in a nutshell, rewilding is about more nature and less “management” – returning to a previous, if not prelapsarian, state.

Beyond not destroying the planet, environmental rewilding is good for us. Nature boosts immunity and healing; it reduces stress and blood pressure. In the US, some doctors now prescribe time in nature, while in Japan, it’s customary to “forest-bathe” – which means walking, fully clothed – for its salubrious effects.

But what about “human rewilding”? When Riddle uses the term, he means “finding ways of living that are more in sync with human biology”. That notion is lent credence by Joseph Lachance, associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Biological Studies, who has studied ancestral DNA. While natural selection takes generations to weed out unfavourable genetic traits, changes in our lifestyles can be “quite rapid” by comparison. “Mismatches exist between our genomes and modern environments,” he says.

So, is the ancestral health or paleo movement right to claim that we should eat and live like hunter-gatherers, even though the unprecedented propagation of our species since would imply that we’re doing pretty well as it is?

It’s possible that this rejection of modern comforts is more of a hobby than a necessity. Lachance points me to the wildly popular YouTube channel Primitive Technology, which demonstrates to its 10 million subscribers how to build a bow and arrow, a tiled mud hut, or a brick kiln in the Australian bush, using nothing but home-made tools. It’s DIY’s answer to the paleo diet.

Riddle doesn’t follow the paleo diet, but he eschews sugar, dairy and grains, and his minimal meat intake comes from wild game. He advocates “sky time over screen time”, but not giving up technology entirely. Riddle coaches rewilding, both online and face to face, to clients ranging from teenagers to septuagenarians, students to billionaires, ex-heavyweight boxer David Haye to healthista chef Jasmine Hemsley. The lifestyle changes that he implements are small, gradual and, even in the urban jungle, applicable. “We can’t all live in nature,” he says, “but that doesn’t mean we can’t live naturally.”

Rewild Your Home

Riddle lives in a flat a 15-minute walk from the ponds with his wife, Katarina, with whom he co-hosts natural parenting workshops, and their four young children. When Riddle was a guest on Chris Evans’s Virgin Radio show back in February, Evans – a fan who runs in Vibram Fivefingers minimalist shoes – kicked off with an important question: how do you potty-train kids years early without nappies? Riddle replied with a logic that, as with many of his lifestyle choices, becomes more obvious the more you think about it: we house-train dogs within weeks. You carry your baby and tune into their signals; they don’t spend years learning to do the opposite of what you then try to teach them.

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In the Riddles’s natural living quarters, there’s a pull-up bar across the kitchen doorway for hanging off, as your shoulders are evolved to do. There are houseplants to extract toxins from the air and, less naturally, a Dyson air purifier. There’s remote-controlled amber lighting, which doesn’t interfere with our body clocks. There are no chairs – just organic cushions around a dining table with the legs cut to 36cm. There are no beds: just organic mattress toppers and bed linen. There’s no TV, though a widescreen iMac sits in the corner on a low desk. (Riddle wears a pair of Swannies blue-light-blocking sunglasses while using it.) There’s a “Squatty Potty”, a sort of footstool around the base of the toilet, which recreates an ancestral faecal position and unkinks your colon.

Sitting is “the new smoking” – or it was before vaping, anyway. When Riddle coaches corporate clients, he recommends that employees set a timer to go off every 20 minutes, when they should walk from one end of the building to the other, or squat while holding onto their desk to reset their posture; he also suggests installing a few air-purifying peace lilies.

When sitting on the ground, you naturally move more regularly, because staying in any one position becomes uncomfortable. This is how Riddle and his family watch their two weekly films, on Saturday and Sunday nights, which his kids choose – typically something lighthearted, rather than a stress-inducing drama or the news (the same thing, these days). The TV has taken the place of a fire, which traditionally everyone in a community would have sat around, sharing stories. What, Riddle asks, are we absorbing now?

As we cycle through some of the 100 or so ground-sitting permutations, the hard, wooden floor massages my soft tissue like a foam roller. This, Riddle says, is sort of what it is: “Rather than setting aside time to stretch, I’m just going through various different resting positions that are nourishing my joints.” I know full well the importance of mobility, yet I often fail to do it. So, I start sitting on the floor at home, which also brings me down to my toddlers’ level. It helps us interact better. I practise it at work, too, in a “breakout” room, using the trendy chairs as a desk. I can’t quite bring myself to bust out squats, but I periodically walk round the corner to the park and hang from the bars. Not every 20 minutes, of course – or I’d never get this written.

human rewilding

Christopher BaKer

Health in Motion

“Nutritious movement” is a concept cooked up by Katy Bowman, a biomechanist and the author of books such as Move Your DNA and Whole Body Barefoot. At her “kinda funky” Washington State home, there’s a standing desk and a low one, to mix things up (and down). There are chairs and benches, mainly for guests, but also cushions on the floor and tree stumps around a shin-height dining table. There are beds with custom-built low frames to allow air to circulate under the mattresses, but no pillows, making her stretch her arms and shoulders in her sleep. There’s a Squatty Potty. The welcome mat contains hundreds of river rocks, to stimulate your feet joints. There are indoor monkey bars.

“As I grew to understand movement more, I realised that a large barrier to it is the way in which our environments are set up,” says Bowman. Movement used to be baked into our daily lives, but with the forward march of technology, we’ve become sedentary. As she writes in Move Your DNA: “Perhaps the only way out of our poor physical state, created by our culture of convenience, is a return to the behaviours of our ancestors.”

Though lionised by the rewilding community, Bowman doesn’t consider herself a rewilder per se. She doesn’t even consider her lifestyle to be all that radical. Like many of us, she works at a computer. Instead of “hacks” that cut things out, Bowman “stacks” by performing daily tasks for everyday efficiency. So, rather than driving to the supermarket, then going to the gym, she’ll walk to the supermarket, then carry the shopping back to tick off hunter-gathering, movement and nature, in less time. She and her husband didn’t use buggies at all; once, a bodybuilder in the local park expressed his amazement that they’d carried their kids all day.

“We evolved to move more,” says Herman Pontzer, associate professor of anthropology at Duke University. Pontzer has studied Tanzania’s Hadza people, who still hunt and gather much as our ancestors did and thus hike for an average of two hours a day – equivalent to around 18,000 steps. Though their life expectancy skews low because of their limited access to medicine, they stay strong into old age, bypass lifestyle diseases and boast “the healthiest hearts on the planet”. They also have strong social networks and an egalitarian society, an absence of which contributes to chronic stress and associated conditions, such as obesity, in the developed world.

Riddle considers himself a “movement opportunist”. If he has a meeting in town about the natural lifestyle co-working space or multi-position piece of office furniture he’s collaborating on, he’ll do a “parasympathetic walk” to the Tube. To switch off the fight-or-flight part of his nervous system, he slows his pace 10% (the opposite of every other Londoner, then). On the train, he’ll stand, squat, hang or “surf”: balance by relying on micro-adjustments of his bulked-up feet.

Bare Necessities

Despite being shoeless, Riddle was sponsored for his country-long ultra by Vivobarefoot, which he wears when we meet. As a professional fitness trend chaser, I bought into barefoot shoes on the back of Christopher McDougall’s 2009 bestseller Born to Run. Lately though, I’ve spotted them on parents and kids in the playground.

I happily sport my Vivos in the gym, but not out of them. The flipper shape – wider at the front than at the back – just looks… wrong. It’s the shape of my feet, yes, but the opposite of “normal” shoes, and the minimalist sole throws off the proportions of any outfit that isn’t compression gear. After extensive research, I compromise with a “zero-drop” (flat from heel to toe) brand called Altis that’s aesthetically acceptable to me – if not to my style-literate mate (“Nice shoes”). I also learn that my Transitions lenses filter eight times more blue light than basic clear lenses, at least outdoors. It’s only two times indoors but that’s one less natural lifestyle accessory to buy. Besides, aviators don’t suit me.

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At the time of writing, Riddle is training for “the Three Bare Peaks” challenge: running 485 miles barefoot across Ben Nevis, Snowden and Scafell Pike, including the in-between bits that most people drive. A former fitness instructor, he had an epiphany approaching the age of 40 that he wasn’t living authentically. Bankruptcy and breakdown led to “breakthrough”. He took ayahuasca, the South American psychedelic plant fabled for its powers of self-discovery, at a house in the Cotswolds; in Ibiza, he inhaled toad venom and visualised himself as a bear-man, breaking his shackles. He ran through the woods, roaring and grabbing trees.

Doing sets and reps in the gym is “symptom relief” for the underlying cause of our dysfunctional lifestyles, says Riddle. He starts his day with breathwork and “spirals”, or spinal waves. He’d rather do muscle-ups than pull-ups, because they’re “more natural”. On the Heath, he lifts and throws awkward rocks and logs, but doesn’t obsess over sets and reps. He crawls. He balances. He follows his squat routines. (See his “Rewild Your Squat” online tutorial.) He plays on gymnastic rings; at home, they turn into a swing for his kids. And he plays with his kids, who don’t obsess over sets and reps, either: “But we’re playing for, like, two hours.” Similarly, I employ my kids as weights for thrusters, swings and halos. I’m gassed in minutes.

Back to Life

A few weeks later, in February, I’m one of 100 attendees at a “Move Breathe Chill” workshop that is co-hosted by Riddle at the Re:Centre wellness hub in Fulham. As the name suggests, it involves breathing, led by Wim Hof-certified coach Artur Paulins, and chilling in an ice bath. As the name doesn’t suggest, it also involves “rechilding”. We move around the room in different directions and unorthodox gaits. If we make eye contact with someone, we have to smile at them or hug, or hold them by the shoulders and say, “You are loved.” In pairs, we place our foreheads together and take it in turns to mirror the other’s movements. (It gets intense and sweaty.) We fall over like we’re drunk, so the other has to support us.

It sounds silly or, as my wife remarks, like “some kind of weird sex cult”. But it also makes a serious point about our deficiency of human contact, which is proven to lower stress and boost immunity, coronavirus aside. Goldsmiths University has just embarked on a global study into whether modern society suffers from “touch hunger”.

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As I make my way home from the workshop on public transport, trying not to look at or touch anybody, staring at my phone, it strikes me that maybe this is what’s weird. It’s not natural.

Ancestral health, diets and footwear might be debatable, but nature, movement and human contact are things that we instinctively know are good for us. “When we get to fair weather and hit the park, we look around at the birds and trees, sigh from relief, stretch back and wish we could be here more often,” says Bowman. But we can, by becoming aware of “the anti-movement, anti-nature choices” we make every day, and eating lunch outside, or walking to work. “We’re so far removed from ‘wild lives’ that to take steps to ‘rewild’ is actually incredibly simple,” she says.

And nature is closer than we think. “Cities are not dead ecologically,” says Pettorelli, who tells me that more than 30,000 species have been recorded living in London. To interest her two small children in nature, she has been taking baby steps to rewild the garden in her Stevenage home: digging a pond, planting blackberries and lavender, letting wild flowers grow.

You don’t have to do anything crazy to rewild. Quite the opposite. “Stop mowing the lawn like a maniac,” she says.

Ancestral Health Claims Seem to Be a Matter of Common Sense. But Do They Deliver? MH Excavates the Facts

Cold Immersion

Evidence that cold treatments such as cryotherapy and ice baths can cool off inflammation, fatigue and cortisol isn’t solid. Research suggests that they may even hinder strength gains.

Barefoot Shoes

Born to Run suggests that a forefoot-first gait is less jarring, but there’s no proof that barefoot shoes reduce injuries. Bowman is a footwear minimalist but stresses the need for corrective exercises.

Ground Living

A paper in the British Medical Journal observed fewer musculoskeletal problems within floor-sleeping cultures – but this finding has yet to be put to bed (or, er, to ground) with firm science.

Human Contact

A body of academic literature connects close relationships to good health. As well as releasing oxytocin, which facilitates bonding, embracing hugs away cortisol after 20 seconds, while skin-to-skin touch signals your vagus nerve to drop your heart rate and blood pressure.


Keep them alive and they may return the favour: NASA’s 1989 clean-air study greenlit the most effective indoor foliage for removing formaldehyde, ammonia, benzene, xylene and trichloroethylene. Plants can also cultivate productivity and concentration.


Promoted for shoulder function and spinal decompression, and as a way to honour our tree-climbing roots. But musculoskeletal changes over two million years have made us less capable brachiators, so the evolutionary argument is “weak”, says Pontzer.

Squatty Potty

After repeatedly being asked about “defecation postural modification devices”, Ohio State gastroenterologists asked medical residents to log their, well, logs. Almost all reported less strain and faster movements atop the Potty – particularly men.

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