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Fit As An Animal: Getting in Shape by Looking to Our Origins

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SEATTLE - In a fitness world flush with gadgets, glitz and glamour, it is beyond nostalgic to meet a character like Frank Forencich.

He is a strong, aerodynamically built rock-climber, hiker and martial artist who studied human biology and anthropology at Stanford University. Somewhere along the line, he decided going backward was the best way to move forward. Way backward, like to the Stone Age.

He's convinced that current fitness regimens ignore our origins and evolution. Forencich, 47, calls his philosophy "Go Animal," and has built it around three guiding principles: getting primal, practical and playful. He set up a Web site called and has written a readable, self-published book titled, "Play as if Your Life Depends on It."

"I was searching for a context between my martial arts, evolution and my anthropology studies," he says. "A lot of the fitness programs these days don't have a lot to do with anything. The human body has an immensely deep biological history, a history that has shaped every detail of our physiology."

Forencich notes that a biologist thinks of fitness in terms of an organism's relationship with its environment and asks what, if any, functional physiological purpose there is to pumping weights. He also believes we should be mindful of the fact that we didn't evolve on flat pavement.

His mindset sent him climbing mountains and venturing into Africa, where he explored ancestral environments and spent time observing and interacting with tribes in Botswana. When he showed me videotaped "Go Animal" workouts on a sleek laptop, he was wearing an Indiana Jones hat, sturdy hiking boots and a day backpack.

He used to run a "Go Animal" gym on Bainbridge Island, just west of Seattle, but it wasn't the right place or time for the workout style, so he sold the building. In fact, while his ideas have piqued interest, they haven't caught fire yet by any means. So he preaches the message through his book and Web site.

His workout games seem to accentuate the core, rear-end and hamstrings.

"The Bucket Brigade" is a game between two players. Each starts with three balls in his or her circle. The object is to empty your circle by picking up the balls one by one and putting each in your opponent's circle. The problem is, your opponent is simultaneously doing the same thing. It usually finishes when someone gives up.

"The King of the Circle" is a leverage game in which opponents, keeping hands behind their backs, try to nudge the other person out of a circle.

Another drill involves tiptoeing as precisely as possible on a series of wobbly boards lined in a row. Sometimes, Forencich employs little hurdles with the wobble boards to accentuate the up-and-down motion and the real-life action of crossing a stream by jumping from log to rock to snag to bank.

So-called functional fitness is gaining favor, but Forencich is far out on the evolutionary tree. Take his trail-running ideas. First you scout the trail, note topography and obstacles like rocks, mud and creek crossings. Then you alternate between walking, jogging, running and resting, depending on your fitness. Heading down is a skill event. He urges you to be conservative. Some trainers say don't do it at all. It's a test of agility, putting a premium on precise footwork. It challenges "sensory and motor-control circuits" in your ankles, knees and hips.

Whether you're headed uphill or down, Forencich urges you to relax and pay attention to your surroundings. He even encourages you to take a break, enjoy vistas and glimpses of wild animals.

"If you stop to explore a side canyon or find a beautiful creek, you will lose nothing and perhaps gain a great deal."



Track yourself

Lewis and Clark didn't need a pedometer; they had a goal. But if you're serious about walking as a workout, you'll probably want to know how fast and far you're moving.

I've been using little gizmos sold by - a tiny pulse monitor and a tinier pedometer. I track my heart rate with the pulse monitor that hangs around my neck. The pedometer, which clips to my belt, measures steps and miles, even calories burned. The pair costs about $40. There is debate on how useful a walking workout is in the long run, but many experts believe it can reap significant rewards if done consistently for at least 30 minutes a day.

We all know how to walk, right? But you might learn something from "Walking for Health and Happiness," by Dr. William Bird and Veronica Reynolds. Published by Reader's Digest, the book touches on topics from mechanics to safety to how to stay inspired.


(Richard Seven is a staff reporter at The Seattle Times. He is filling in for Molly Martin, who is on a six-month leave of absence. Send questions on workouts, equipment or nutrition to him at: Pacific Northwest magazine, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111, or e-mail


(c) 2003, The Seattle Times. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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