Barranca del Cobre, or the Copper Canyon, is called the Grand Canyon of Mexico. Located in the northern state of Chihuahua, tourists most often arrive in this spectacular area by train, the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad. My husband (Dov) and I chose this spot for our annual December holiday because it offered an opportunity to integrate vigorous exercise (hiking the mountains) with beautiful scenery and an interesting culture—the Tarahumara Indians.
The Tarahumara have been called “the finest natural distance runners in the world” by University of Arizona archaeologist Michael Jenkinson. Tarahumara hunters have been known to run after deer and rabbits until their prey drops from exhaustion. Mexican ranchers have hired the Indians to chase down wild horses. Tarahumara men routinely run between 50 to 80 miles in the course of their daily lives, and they do so in huaraches—sandal-like shoes with soles made from rubber tires tied on their feet with leather straps.
The terrain in the Copper Canyon is steep and rocky, with long downhill stretches to a river valley and long uphill climbs to the canyon rim. Until recently, travel by foot was the primary way for Tarahumaras to get around. Travel by wagon or horseback is difficult due to the ruggedness of the terrain. Travel by car is a relatively new and still a limited phenomenon.
Dov and I along with a handful of other intrepid tourists took an all day hike from the lovely Tarahumara-owned ecolodge, Uno, to a Tarahumara village a number of miles away. As we cautiously picked our way down to the valley floor, being careful not to slip and fall on the gravelly trail, Mariano, a Tarahumara boy who accompanied us, scampered up and down the mountainside easily covering twice the ground with seemingly half the effort. The men and boys we met on the trail were all lean and wiry. They exuded fitness.
Towards the end of the day, we encountered Mariano’s mother and girl cousin. I was surprised to see that they were both quite heavy despite getting more exercise in their daily life than most folks in the developed world—although much less aerobic exercise than the Tarahumara men and boys. This gave me pause.
Will the encroachment of modern society be harmful?
As modern society continues to encroach on the Copper Canyon, bringing more and more energy-conserving conveniences, such cars and store bought food, what will become of the Tarahumaras? Are they at risk of becoming obese and insulin resistant if their lifestyle changes?
Other Native cultures, such as the Pima Indians in the American Southwest and the First Nations people of Canada have very high rates of obesity, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes with its associated health problems of high blood pressure, abnormal lipid profiles, and heart disease. Dietary acculturation (substitution of modern for traditional food items) and lack of physical activity in the face of a genetic predisposition (sometimes called the “thrifty genotype”) are the most likely explanations for the high rates of these medical conditions (T. Young, Canadian Medical Association Journal, Sept. 5, 2000).
The health benefits of exercise are numerous whether or not an individual is overweight or obese. But attaining healthy levels of vigorous exercise are increasingly difficult in modern society. Long work hours, long commute times, jobs that require sitting at computers for hours at a time all contribute to the current levels of unhealthy sedentarism that pervades developed societies. When combined with easy access to high-calorie fast foods, many of us who inherited a genetic predisposition to obesity and insulin resistance find ourselves facing lifelong challenges to our metabolic health. As these modern practices are incorporated into the daily lives of isolated Native communities, such as the Tarahumara, we could see the same disastrous health consequences as we have seen with the Pima Indians and First Nations peoples.
We have a lot to learn about how to (re)integrate healthy levels of physical activity in our modern society. Most of us are not going to become ultramarathon runners or routinely hike the mountains of the Copper Canyon. However, we can and should try to reorder our lives to incorporate vigorous physical activity into our daily routines. Running, hiking, long walks, stair climbing, mountain climbing, swimming, biking, or dancing…pick your favorite and start moving. It’’s for your health.