“Although average global life expectancy more than doubled between 1800 and 2017 – from 30 to 73 years – the report says the proportion of people’s lives lived in poor or moderate health has remained unchanged at 50%.”
“If I want to live to 100, what do I have to physically be able to do to be satisfied with my life?”
Dr. Peter Attia
Over the last three or four years, I have been slowly shifting the focus of how I spend my “disposable time” from “becoming a capable fighter in the Wing Chun system” to “being a healthy old man” who can also fight pretty well, considering. Of course, I’m just starting to creep into old man territory (I turn 60 this year) but its best to get ahead of these things. Does this mean I’m discarding my martial ambitions? No, but it does mean I’m changing how I pursue them.
Almost all of my “spare time” (time not spent on my job, my relationship, or sleeping and eating) is spent working in one way or another toward a general goal of “self-actualization.” Dr. Abraham Maslow defined this as a “self-fulfillment…to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.” For me this means studying in a few areas of interest (film, literature, certain sciences, armed and unarmed combat and all that entails) and working toward developing myself physically, mentally, and spiritually. In practice, this has meant having a semi-strict diet, having a baseline exercise routine, training in martial arts, and working (to some degree) on developing my mind through study.
Of course, all of this has been intermittently successful and more or less rigorous. I’m more disciplined than many and not as much as some. I make my priorities and work at implementing them. I struggle with tendencies toward laziness.
This can all be thought of as a framework. I have my goals and these activities are the various pillars of my overall plan. In the last few years, one of the principal shifts has been away from “training toward my goals and just trying to avoid injury” toward this idea of “how do I have a healthy active life for the next however long I have left?” with a side order of “I’m still interested in having as much martial capability as possible.”
One of the key resources I’ve used to guide this shift has been information I’ve picked up from Dr. Peter Attia. I first heard of him on Tim Ferris’s podcast and then I subsequently started listening to his podcast. According to his website:
“Peter earned his M.D. from Stanford University and holds a B.Sc. in mechanical engineering and applied mathematics. He trained for five years at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in general surgery…spent two years at NIH as a surgical oncology fellow at the National Cancer Institute…(and) has since been mentored by some of the most experienced and innovative lipidologists, endocrinologists, gynecologists, sleep physiologists, and longevity scientists in the United States and Canada…(He is) a physician focusing on the applied science of longevity…(dealing) extensively with nutritional interventions, exercise physiology, sleep physiology, emotional and mental health, and pharmacology to increase lifespan (how long you live), while simultaneously improving healthspan (the quality of your life).”
OK. That all lines up nicely with what I am interested in knowing! The thing is, there is just way too much information out there these days! So I am a big fan of finding someone who has expertise and who has done a lot of the heavy lifting for me. This is why I study martial arts with people like Greg LeBlanc and Bernard Langan and why I find people like Peter Attia who can vett all this medical information for me and just listen to his advice (with some fact checking and analysis thrown in).
Peter came up with a useful framework for this set of concepts he calls the “Centenarian Olympics.” He shares my goal of being as healthy as possible as long as possible but he has thought about it in a lot more detail with a great deal more (Western scientific) knowledge to back up his conclusions. The way he went about it was to reverse-engineer the question. How long can we hope to live?
Well, the most you can expect is in the ballpark of 120 years (Jeanne Calment lived to 122). Most people don’t live much past 79, in the US.
But he’s thinking, let’s say I make it to 100. That seems like a decent goal these days. Shoot for the moon, maybe you’ll hit a star! OK – if we live to 100, and we hope to have quality of life, what should our physical capabilities be? Let’s make a list of these “desired capabilities at 100,” and then reverse engineer back to now, and start planning. How I should train now to hit that future mark?
He details some of his benchmarks in the article “How to Train for the “Centenarian Olympics.” Some of his physical aspirations for his centennial – he wants to:
- Be able to play with his potential future grandkids and even great grandkids – so be able to drop into a squat position and pick up a child that weighs 30 pounds.
- Get up off the floor with a single point of support (i.e. using just one arm).
- Lift something that weighs 30 pounds over his head (i.e. a suitcase into an overhead bin).
- Get out of a pool without a ladder
And so on. It’s a useful thought experiment! And based on this line of thinking, he suggests we think about these four components of physical capacity.
- Aerobic performance (Zone 1, like walking normally and Zone 2 – steady medium heart rate over a longer time period, such as running or biking for an hour)
- Anaerobic output (Zone 5, such as Sprinting – high heart rate for a short burst)
So how do I apply all of this?
- I shifted to a Mediterranean or modified Keto diet, since my blood sugar was high. The diet fixed the blood sugar and I also became much leaner as a result. A useful resource for this was a couple of books by Dr. Jason Fung: The Diabetes Code and The Obesity Code. They basically prove that diabetes, obsity, and other components of “metabolic syndrome” are all largely caused by high sugar diets (counting carbohydrates as sugars) and a lack of exercise.
- I kept getting injured doing Wing Chun (maybe because I was doing it wrong or carelessly?) so I’ve switched to Taijiquan and I Liq Chuan, which are more circular and less angular and are systems which explicitly promote health and longevity, not only by providing the required stability training Dr. Attia mentions but also through more Chinese approaches to longevity by promoting the movement of fascia (a practice more and more in line with Western medicine, partly through Western medicine studying Chinese practices and confirming their efficacy).
- I started working more explicitly to train Zone 2 regularly (using a stationary bike and a heart monitor). I try and do this at least twice a week.
- I take a 30 minute walk nearly every day (Zone 1).
- I’ve periodically included a weight training component, although I cycle between calisthenics, weight training such as the Deadlift and Squat, and most recently using kettlebells. My goal is to have all of these components on-line and working them regularly.
The older you get, the more these sorts of activities are going to like swimming against the current of aging. The older you get, the more you need to do to stay in one place, really. Pavel Tsatsouline, the exercise guru who introduced (or more probably re-introduced, since they were used by the old time strongmen) kettlebell training to the US , used to recommend a rotation practice to keep your joints healthy, based on the advice of a famous Russian doctor. The practice was to rotate each joint as many times as you were years old. Unfortunately, some such algorithm is likely necessary for stemming the tide of old age!