I have a new fitness goal – training for the “Centenarian Decathlon” – i.e be fit when you are really old. The idea is that as we get older, our muscle and fitness declines rapidly. It means we can spend the last 10 years of our life, unable to move properly. The body fails before the heart and brain. The only way to be fit and mobile in the last decade of our life is to start training for it now.
The idea comes from Peter Attia – a doctor and fitness guru, who has spent a lot of time researching how to combat ageing and improve our healthy lifespan. He wrote a good book – “Outlive” which goes into different aspects of things that make a difference in improving life-expectancy and healthy life-expectancy. An important conclusion from all his scientific research is that if you did one single thing to improve life and healthy life-expectancy – it is exercise. Exercise is the single most important thing that makes a difference. Try to eat healthy, get good sleep, minimise stress and cultivate happiness. But, if there is a magic bullet, it is exercise – aerobic, VO2 max and core strength.
By the way, healthy life-expectancy is the age at which we are physically able to live an active life. Researching an economics video, I found that in the UK the healthy life expectancy is just 51 in Blackpool, but 71 in Richmond Upon Thames (Population problem). There is a regional variation in life expectancy, but an even bigger discrepancy in healthy life-expectancy. The way modern medicine and health systems are set up – we focus nearly all our efforts on treating the symptoms of ill-health, but do very little on preventative medicine. Peter Attia claimed that 70% of deaths in the US are preventable, but only 3% of the health care budget goes towards preventative care. In an ideal world, exercise would be more incorporated into transport systems, schools, even workplaces. But, if we want to take part in the centenarian decathlon, we have to take the initiative and start training now.
The good news for keen cyclists. VO2 max is one of the most reliable guides to life expectancy. The higher the VO2, there is a very strong correlation for higher life-expectancy. Even small amounts of high intensity training, can boost our VO2 max and our fitness. VO2 max steadily declines with age, but we can partly arrest the decline through training VO2 max specifically. In my own cycling, this year I haven’t done very much VO2 max efforts at all, just pottering around town. So this is a good reminder to make more of an effort in this regard.
As you might expect the more you improve your aerobic base, the more good things happen for our health. It improves our cardiovascular health, but also our general mood and feeling of well-being.
The Harvard professor in this video is very good. One of the most interesting things I learnt was when people are unfit, if they exercise they don’t get the same ‘buzz’ / ‘dopamine’ effect that trained athletes do. This is why unfit people don’t like exercise, it is just all suffering, little reward. But, when you get to a certain level of fitness, then increasingly the body is able to send a reward of ‘dopamine’ and exercise becomes much more enjoyable. This is why it can be so hard to get going with exercise; at the start, it is not much fun. But, if you can get a critical mass of fitness then everything becomes easier because exercise itself becomes more enjoyable. I’ve found that in my own exercise cycles. When you’re fit and firing on all cylinders, you can’t wait to get back on the bike and do more training. But, when you get out of the habit, the idea of doing hill intervals or whatever, appears less desirable.
Another really important thing about training for old age is general all-round strength. As a cyclist, I have often been guilty of focusing only on cycling and not doing the more ‘boring’ core strength exercises. If you have ever seen me in a lycra skinsuit (and apologies if you have) you will know my body type is perfect for long-seated hill climbs. But, equally, it is perfectly unsuited for doing pull-ups and push ups. Yet, when you get really old, this kind of upper-body strength could be the difference between pulling yourself out of bed and being bedridden. I spend some time with a friend with Parkinson’s. When it kicks in, the legs stop working and to get out of bed, it requires pulling on bars to get up. It is touch and go, and this is a real motivation for training for old age. You realise every workout and muscle strength you developed – makes the difference of whether you can get out of bed, and being able to do basic tasks.
In the pandemic period, I got into the habit of online shopping. It’s amazing, you click on your computer and all your heavy shopping gets brought to your door. It saves so much effort. I used to take a rucksack when travelling, but now replace it with mini suitcases on wheels. Rather than take the stairs at the airport, we have lifts and travellators. Everything is geared towards comfort and ease of use. When we put a backpack on, it is a bit uncomfortable, so we seek ways to avoid lifting and carrying. Everything that used to keep the body in shape is being replaced by technology which does the heavy lifting for us. But, actually walking with a heavy backpack, is really good training for the body. It is why the army use this kind of training.
All this is good in the short-term, but it means the modern homeo sapiens is losing strength and the ability to function like we are supposed to. When things go wrong, it’s either too late or we just seek a solution to the problem of a weak body – not address the underlying cause. This is why we have to make so much conscious effort to keep the body active and avoid the comfort delusion. For example, when my 70-year-old mother brings in the shopping, I feel the right thing to do is go and help her carry the heavy shopping bags. But, actually, that weight training of lifting heavy shopping is the best thing she can do. (Apparently, women particularly benefit from weight training in old age). What I should be doing is inviting my parents down to do some redecorating in my house, keep them busy.
My spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy said that once you are over 50 you should try and if possible do 2-3 hours of exercise and stretching per day. Sri Chinmoy used to be a keen runner, but when he got a bad knee injury, he took up weight lifting and sought to inspire the older generation, that we can keep ourselves fit. The idea of 2-3 hours per day exercise seems such a long-time. But, now I’m getting closer to 50, I have a goal to do this. Peter Attia states that many people who come to his clinic spent years seeking to make themselves rich, but when they reach a certain age, they realise it is no use, unless you have the good health to go with it. We just have to prioritise health and exercise and find time wherever we can.
For example, I was taking someone to hospital last week, there is hours and hours of waiting. But even then, there are some exercises you can do. Try stand on one foot with your eyes closed and then try stand on your toes with your eyes closed. Sounds easy? It isn’t.
There are also other exercises you can do in small confined spaces. I’m a big fan of eccentrics. Pretty much all using your body weight. The aim is to try and exercise all 600+ muscles in the body. The exercises seem easy, but the first time I did a 30 minute session, I couldn’t believe how stiff I was the next day! Muscles you don’t use in daily life.
Cycling is great
On average I spend one hour a day cycling around Oxford, Kennington, mostly on the cycle path. It’s a really efficient way to both get around time, save money and keep fit. Oxford is in the news for its controversial transport plans like LTN. But, not so visible are the huge benefits to physical and mental health which will come to societies if we can encourage active travel. So that’s a start, but I will work on improving upper body strength too.
And it is that time of the year to start thinking of VO2 Max Hill climb intervals
- Outlive by Peter Attia