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Planning Your Centenarian Decathlon
Redefining exercise, killing false beliefs, and preparing for a kick ass final decade.
The Centenarian Decathlon: What is it?
Centenarian: a person who is one hundred or more years old.
Decathlon: an athletic contest that consists of ten events.
The Centenarian Decathlon is a mental model Dr. Peter Attia created to visualize the most important physical tasks we want to be able to do until our final day.
Longevity consists of two components: lifespan and healthspan.
A longer lifespan is fantastic, but it doesn’t mean much if your quality of life (healthspan) is severely restricted.
While healthspan has physical and cognitive components, the Centenarian Decathlon is concerned with our physical capabilities.
So, what are the ten or so types of movement, whether it be activities of daily living, exercise, sports, or hobbies, you want to be able to do until you die?
Once you know what those things are, you can optimize your exercise routine today to enable you to be able to do those things in your final decade.
The catch is that we naturally lose strength and aerobic capacity as we age.
So whatever it is you want to be able to do at age 80, you need to be doing much more now.
For example, if you’re fifty now and want to be able to drop down and scoop up your 60 lb granddaughter at age eighty, you need to be able to goblet squat much more than 60 lbs today.
Killing False Beliefs
Most people believe that they will eventually become weak, immobile, and incapable in old age.
And they’re right.
The people who hold that belief will fulfill their expectations for old age.
But if you decide to wipe away that default belief, view yourself as an athlete of life, and modify your daily habits to prepare you for old age, then you can determine what your final decade will look like.
The cherry on top?
Implementing the kind of practices that will benefit you in your final decade will also massively enhance every single day of your life starting right now — physically, mentally, and emotionally.
From having more energy and reducing your risk of injury to feeling stronger and more stable, gearing your exercise towards the Centenarian Decathlon will improve your lifespan and boost your healthspan.
Case Study in Movement: The Japanese
Although chairs are gaining popularity, sitting on the floor is still common practice for meals and tea ceremony in Japan.
Because of this practice, many elderly Japanese folks are able to get up and down off the floor with ease — a capability we automatically dismiss as impossible for elderly Western people.
You don’t need to throw out your dining room table in exchange for a tatami mat and low table.
But it’s worth thinking about how you might modify your environment in order to maintain movements you don’t want to lose with age so you don’t have to carve out additional exercise time to keep them.
Use it or lose it.
Setting Targets for Your Centenarian Decathlon
Your Centenarian Decathlon will be unique to your goals, but should revolve around two key aims for which there is substantial overlap:
Delaying the onset of chronic disease (The Four Horsemen).
Maintaining the highest quality of life for as long as possible.
Once you understand the types of activities you want to be able to do in old age to maintain a high-quality life, whatever that looks like for you, the question becomes what combination of exercise will help you achieve these two goals?
With exercise, we have four areas of focus:
Long-duration aerobic endurance (zone two)
Short to medium-duration endurance (anaerobic power and VO2 max training)
Strength and muscle
Stability, mobility, and flexibility
(I’ve written extensively on each of these topics, so I won’t go into detail here. See Annex A: Exercise Resources below.)
The point of the Centenarian Decathlon is to fundamentally reframe how we think about exercise.
Exercise should not be seen as a way to lose weight or to look more muscular or toned in the mirror.
Yes, it can do both of those things.
But more importantly, it can enable you to live independently and to play on the floor with your grandchildren at age eighty.
It can give you the energy and strength to engage in your favourite sports and hobbies from now until your final days.
And it can delay disease and extend the number of healthy years you have.
Exercise is not a chore, it’s a privilege and a gift to yourself — both today and in the decades to come.
Thinking about exercise through the Centenarian Decathlon means moving and exercising with maximal intention.
It means making a list of the specific things you want to be able to do in your final decade of life and then backcasting to determine what you have to do on a daily basis now to achieve those goals.
It means learning, planning diligently, and being disciplined day in and day out to make those goals pop out of the paper and emerge into your reality.
And ultimately, it means redefining what you thought possible for your life and setting the right example for others.
Please see The Annex below for actionable information on planning your Centenarian Decathlon.
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Annex A: Exercise Resources
Aerobic and Anaerobic
Strength and Muscle
Stability, Flexibility, and Mobility
The Longevity Combine (Fitness Testing)
Annex B: Examples of Centenarian Decathlon Activities
Below is a list of activities that, if one is able to do in their final decade, would equate to a strong quality of life.
As you read through these examples, consider what combination of strength, stability, mobility, flexibility, and endurance each activity requires:
Dead hang for 30 seconds
Tread water for 10 minutes
Place a 30-pound suitcase overhead
Cover three miles by foot in one hour
Carry 20 pounds up four flights of stairs
Do a plank in perfect form for one minute
Get up off the floor with one point of support
Hex bar deadlift your body weight for five reps
Pull or push a weighted sled 100 feet with some resistance
Pick up a 30-pound child from a squatted position or from a crib
Farmer’s walk for one minute with 25% of body weight in each hand
Single-leg get-up without support (e.g., getting up off the couch on one leg)
Single-leg glute bridge, 15 reps without straining your lower back (lumbar spine)
Single-leg stand with eyes open for 30 seconds, with eyes closed for 15 seconds
A dumbbell lunge in perfect form with 15% of your body weight in each hand for 10 reps
Walk up and down stairs with your feet pointed perfectly forward (this is a sign of good ankle mobility).
Produce a VO2 max above 30 mL/min/kg (if you can do that, you can do a bunch of other activities).
Scale a ledge at shoulder height or pull yourself out of a pool onto a deck, 12 inches above the water surface
Your favourite recreational activities and hobbies for a specific period of time per day and/or number of times per week (gardening, cycling, surfing, hiking, etc.)
Annex C: Centenarian Decathlon Standards
Long Duration Aerobic Endurance: Zone 2
Scientifically, Zone 2 is defined as the output you can sustain while keeping lactate production under 2 mmol. But this is challenging to measure.
The simple way to measure it is by rating of perceived exertion (RPE).
Zone 2 is the threshold where you can speak, but only a few words, and you would rather not carry on a conversation.
For reference, Zone 1 would be talking normally while you walk with a friend.
Another proxy to measure Zone 2 is the maximum amount of output you can sustain while only nasal breathing (breathing in and out through your nose).
To measure progress, look for an ability to produce more work at the same level of output (whether that be speed, distance, or wattage).
For example, if I can run 5 km in 30 minutes in month one and by month three am running 5 km in 25 minutes while staying in a Zone 2 state, my aerobic efficiency has improved.
Max Aerobic Endurance: VO2 Max
In most cities, you can hire a clinic to perform a VO2 Max test for $100-150.
The farmer’s carry is a great test of both upper body and grip strength.
Farmer carry: walking while carrying weight in each hand.
A man in his 40s should be able to carry his body weight for a minute (half of his body weight in each hand).
A woman in her 40s should be able to carry 75% of her body weight for a minute.
Younger people are held to a higher standard and older people to a lower standard.
Dead hangs are another great test for grip strength
Dead hang: hanging from a bar with your arms extended.
A man in his 40s should be able to dead hang for two minutes.
A woman in her 40s should be able to dead hang for a minute and a half.
This standard gets discounted roughly 10-15 seconds per decade for each decade the individual is above 40. Younger people are held to a higher standard.
Wall sits are a great test of leg strength.
You should be able to sit with your back against the wall, your thighs parallel to the ground, without using your hands for two minutes.
DEXA scans cost $100-200 and provide a fantastic measure of lean muscle mass, appendicular lean mass (ALMI), fat mass, and bone density.