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How to Be Fit at 100: The Centenarian Olympics

Mehdi Yacoubi
December 4, 2020

Since I started being interested in longevity and wellbeing a couple of years ago, I began noticing the way older people behave: their health, their wellbeing, their happiness. After many conversations and discussions, I understood they all regretted the same: having lost their agility and the ability to accomplish everyday physical tasks.

When you think about it, we come across examples of that almost every day. The older man next to you in the plane who can’t store his carry-on in the overhead bin. A family member who can’t get up from a sitting position. When is the last time you saw an older adult playing with a kid on the ground? Or getting out of a pool using her strength?

This made me ask myself:

Is there a way to prevent the loss of physical ability and be fit at 100?

Age and physical abilities: Fatality or choice?

The observation was evident when it comes to physical fitness; almost all people are limited in their day to day tasks. Sometimes the loss of necessary abilities is slow and progressive, but for others, it can be swift. Getting and feeling old and physically limited can happen in a few months.

To many people, it seems reasonable that past a certain age, their physical abilities drop. Otherwise, why would we be seeing so many golden-agers struggling to hold their grocery bags at the supermarket? It may appear as a normal state. After the age of youth and physical vigor follows the period of the lost abilities.

But as I started paying more and more attention to how people age, I came across a very different kind of older adults. This past summer, I traveled to Norway, where I went on some hiking trips. I was astonished to see that most of the best-shaped hikers were golden-agers. I wanted to know more about them and their habits, so I talked with some of them. I remember this lady that was over 80 years old explaining to me how she was planning to “win” one mountain peak per week during that summer. The physical fitness of those older people was nothing less than remarkable.

So how come most people end up losing most of their physical abilities with age while some outliers in the same age hike in the mountains?

A mental model for longevity

One thing is sure: if some people manage to be in great shape past 80 or even 90 years old, it means there is a way to do it. Recently I listened to an episode of the Doctor’s Pharmacy hosted by Dr. Hyman with longevity & wellness expert Dr. Peter Attia. In this episode, Dr. Attia explained his very original way of seeing the problem I just described.

Dr. Attia explains that you should think of the things you want to be able to do at age 100. For example, he wants to be able to do the following things at age 100:

  • Get up off the floor with his support.
  • Pull himself out of a pool.
  • Pick up a child that’s running at him.
  • Walk up and down three flights of stairs with 10 lbs. of groceries in each hand.
  • Lift a 30 lb. suitcase and put it in the overhead bin

Once you have listed the features you want to remain able to do comes the second step. Now the idea is to work backward from the list and establish what milestones you have to achieve at 90, 80 going all the way to your current age.

What most people get wrong is that just being “fit” without any specificity towards the physical features you want to achieve at age 100 is not the optimal pathway to staying fit as a golden-ager. Most people can get up off the floor, and many of us wouldn’t even understand how that would be a problem. Yet a majority of older adults can’t. It means that without a specific training targeting the list you made for yourself, your chances of actually ticking the boxes are very low.

How to train for the Centenarian Olympics

Being able to stay physically fit at an advanced age is not impossible. Everyone may have a different set of goals in their list, but it usually requires appropriate training that evolves around four pillars.

As it is a genuinely personal endeavor, there is no one-size-fits-all approach that everyone can implement. People will start at different ages and different physical backgrounds. The following pillars are training areas that could be great to incorporate in your training, but the dosage of each one will depend on the person.

Stability

This one is by far the most overlooked pillar of physical training. The goal of stability training is to transfer the load efficiently to the muscles. Stability is also essential in reducing injuries and promoting healthy movement.

Among the best exercises for stability are:

  • Unilateral exercises with a focus on form (single leg deadlift, single-arm press)
  • Turkish get-ups
  • Core strength exercises

Adequate strength

Regarding strength, there are many different approaches to it. It will usually involve some kind of compound movements like squats, deadlifts, and presses. A good starting point for education on this topic would be starting strength. Before doing any of these compound exercises, one should make sure his form is perfect.

Aerobic efficiency

Training for aerobic efficiency means training at a medium pace. Dr. Attia calls this zone 2 training; it involves training at a level of exertion where you can still have a conversation (or breathe through the nose). This kind of exercise improves mitochondrial health,

Aerobic efficiency training sessions are usually between 30 and 60 minutes. An example of some of the best aerobic efficiency exercises:

  • Low-intensity rowing
  • Low-intensity running
  • Low-intensity cycling

Anaerobic performance

It consists of short duration high-intensity exercise. A perfect example of this kind of training would High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). There are a lot of HIIT templates out there (for men and women).

To better understand the differences between aerobic and anaerobic training and their benefits, check out this article!

It’s worth noting here that adding Yoga to your routine would be great because it accomplishes a lot of things in one shot: stability, balance, flexibility, and muscular endurance.

We always tend to gravitate towards our strengths, and that leads to huge imbalances and weaknesses in the long term. In Tools of Titans, Tim Ferriss quotes Laird Hamilton:

“All you flexible people should go bang some iron, and all you big weight lifters should go do some yoga. . . . We always gravitate toward our strengths because we want to be in our glory.”

Playing the long game

Let’s be honest for a second; this kind of training is not the most exciting. Who would be thrilled to go to the gym to work for an hour on stabilizers, or to do single-arm presses with a heavy focus on your form? As Tim Ferriss said: “If you want to play the long game, you have to check your ego at the door.”

In every other aspect of life, playing the long game is hard. As Farnam Street’s article synthesizes it, “The first step to the long game is the hardest. The first step is visibly negative. You have to be willing to suffer today to not suffer tomorrow. This is why the long game is hard to play.”

In other words, it is difficult to commit to something that shows results only in the long term, and that is not particularly enjoyable. Without commitment, there can be no results, so how can we make this endeavor appealing enough to motivate people to embark on their Centenarian Olympics?

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail” , Benjamin Franklin

Creating a sense of purpose

The first step to create your successful Centenarian Olympics is to understand why you are doing it. Most people avoid thinking about aging, but it is coming anyway, and the best way to face it is to be prepared. If you are not 100% convinced that this the optimal way to get the results you want to achieve, the chances are that you will quit.

Once you understand how important this approach is, a great way to stick to it is to create milestones. For example, setting annual goals in each pillar can be great for developing a sense of accountability.

The Centenarian Olympics is undoubtedly an excellent way to make sure you keep your physical abilities until late in life. Alongside other longevity-promoting practices such as fasting, developing self-knowledge about your health, and mindfulness, it can create a synergistic approach to aging and give you the best chances to live a long and fulfilled life.

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