A new book on longevity science by Peter Attia, titled Outlive, introduces a compelling framework for embracing our inevitable physical decline.
Attia — who cut his teeth at the Stanford University School of Medicine, Johns Hopkins Hospital and the National Institutes of Health — calls his “Centenarian Decathlon” a template for training. Instead of bemoaning all the physical capabilities we’re doomed to lose at the end of our lives, we should cling to those we’d like to keep…and make a plan now, in order to do so successfully.
Attia’s Centenarian Decathlon
This is Attia’s sample Centenarian Decathlon from the book. Notice that it includes a mix of events that you’d typically associate with exercise and many that are just lifestyle actions — the sort of stuff we take for granted in middle age and earlier.
- Hike 1.5 miles on a hilly trail.
- Get up off the floor under your own power, using a maximum of one arm for support.
- Pick up a young child from the floor.
- Carry two five-pound bags of groceries for five blocks.
- Lift a twenty-pound suitcase into the overhead compartment of a plane.
- Balance on one leg for thirty seconds, eyes open. (Bonus points: eyes closed, fifteen seconds.)
- Have sex.
- Climb four flights of stairs in three minutes.
- Open a jar.
- Do thirty consecutive jump-rope skips.
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Other ideas for your decathlon
We’ve drafted a variety of extra ideas below, including inspirations from Attia, nominations from message boards online and proposals of our own:
- Ride a bike
- Shovel snow off a driveway
- Open a jar
- Play 18 holes of golf
- Walk 10,000 steps in a day
- Travel somewhere by plane
- Walk a dog for 30 minutes at a time
- Lift a cast iron skillet with one hand
- Walk up a steep hill
- Move furniture around a room
- Wear shoes with laces
- Do 10 push-ups in one set
- Operate a kayak
How to implement them
Some of these might sound way too ambitious. Others sound doable. All probably sound pretty desirable. When choosing your Centenarian Decathlon, you’re essentially choosing the 10 physical tasks that are most important to you. Mileage will vary (literally) on how strenuous you’re inclined to go. For many, the idea of lifting a great-grandkid into their arms may seem endgame enough.
But life can be more than intermittent family visits at that age. Short of signing up for road races (as some super-nonagenarians indeed do), you’ll truly appreciate what strength, mobility and physical independence you can retain at that age. And the more these capacities are sharpened today, the easier it is to protect them in the ensuing decades.
Attia writes: “Over the next thirty or forty years, your muscle strength will decline by about 8 to 17 percent per decade— accelerating as time goes on. So if you want to pick up that thirty-pound grandkid or great-grandkid when you’re eighty, you’re going to have to be able to lift about fifty to fifty-five pounds now. Without hurting yourself. Can you do that?” Examples apply for hiking trails, hoisting carry-on luggage, climbing flights of stairs, etc.
If any of these tasks are onerous today, they’re going to be impossible come deep retirement years. This is why you need to get to work today, to build up your muscle strength, heart health and lactate threshold. In the long run, it won’t just be the years at the end of your life that will improve. A lifetime dedication to activity will enrich every year along the way.