September 19, 2022

Exercise & Physical Health

#223 – AMA #39: The Centenarian Decathlon, zone 2, VO2 max, and more

“Time, intensity, and specificity are going to be necessary components to give you the optionality to be able to be as physically active as possible when you're in the final decade of your life.” —Peter Attia

Read Time 20 minutes

In this “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) episode, Peter describes what it means to exercise with the goal of longevity in mind, including his personal goals, exercise framework, and how he is optimizing for what he refers to as the “Centenarian Decathlon.” He explains the various types of cardiovascular training and how to partition your time between intensity levels (i.e., zone 2 training vs. zone 5 training) to optimize cardiorespiratory benefit. Additionally, Peter dives deep into questions around VO2 max, such as why it’s critical for longevity, how to improve it, and the value in starting VO2 max optimization early in life.

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We discuss:

  • Exercise topics to be discussed [1:45];
  • Peter’s exercise goals, and the Centenarian Decathlon [4:00];
  • Peter’s exercise framework, and how he tracks his MET hours [8:30];
  • How to partition your time between low and high intensity exercise to optimize results [13:15];
  • Zone 2 exercise: ideal training methods and how to determine your zone 2 level [23:15];
  • Rucking as a versatile mode of exercise [31:45];
  • Zone 5 exercise: modalities of training, time per week, and other considerations [34:30];
  • The importance of knowing your VO2 max, and methods for estimating it [38:15];
  • Training methods for improving VO2 max, and realistic targets for improvement [46:00];
  • Relationship of VO2 max with age and the required fitness levels for daily life activities and exercise [52:30];
  • The training necessary to maintain an elite VO2 max throughout life [58:45];
  • The value in starting early: the compounding nature of fitness [1:01:45]; and
  • More.


Exercise topics to be discussed [1:45]

  • There have been a lot of follow up questions after the recent exercise content on The Drive
  • Today will be some rapid fire questions going a little deeper on exercise topics
  • If all goes to plan we’ll cover all four pillars of questions that have come in
  • It should be a good well rounded AMA on all things exercise


Peter’s exercise goals, and the Centenarian Decathlon [4:00]

The Centenarian Decathlon is simply a mental model for how Peter thinks about training

  • In Peter’s long experience with training, something became very clear: Specificity matters
  • But people confuse specificity with narrow, that’s not the case
  • You can be broadly trained and broadly conditioned, but with specificity and focus—that’s really what the Centenarian Decathlon is all about
  • You can be narrowly focused with great specificity, that’s what certain types of athletes are doing.
    • For instance, if you’re the best golfer in the world, there are some really, really specific things that you need to be doing
    • You’re training is basically focused on enhancing those very, very specific movements and probably some training to counterbalance the asymmetry there
  • So it’s very difficult to be successful in a physical endeavor if you are not pursuing some sort of objective
  • The “I’m just going to work out” strategy doesn’t really produce great results over the long haul
  • And we’re going after a really hard problem—which is to be in the last decade of your life, what we call the marginal decade, and be incredibly robust physically

What does that look like to be physically robust in the marginal decade? 

  • Imagine a 90 year old who’s functioning like a 70 year old, but that is going to require a lot of preparation 
  • When you think about the inevitability of decline of muscle mass, strength, cardiorespiratory fitness, you have to be training for that with the same degree of focus and specificity that a person is training for to be an exceptional athlete in their 30s or 40s
  • The Centenarian Decathlon basically forces us to be specific in what our metrics are in that last decade of life, and it allows us to “backcast” from there
    • Forecasting from wherever you are today will almost without exception fail to get you where you need to go, because you’ll end up missing the mark by slipping underneath it
    • Instead you want to start with where you need to be at the very end and work your way backwards


Peter’s exercise framework, and how he tracks his MET hours [8:30]

How Peter’s training has changed over the years:

{end of show notes preview}

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  1. Okay, it’s early morning and I’m unarguably jet-lagged. Confused about the recommendation of ;

    “ You do four minutes of about as hard as you can go for four minutes, followed by 4 minutes rest in between”.

    Surely you don’t mean 4 minutes of uninterrupted super hard biking or running etc? Even 20 seconds at the max pace is hard to sustain let alone four minutes. Did you mean “do 8 minutes total, comprised of one minute of as hard as you can go followed by a minute of rest, repeated for a total of 8 minutes”?

    Then it says repeat four to six times, and do one or two times a week. So total exercise time is 32 to 48 minutes per session, once or twice a week.


    • Do 4 minutes at the highest (or close to) intensity you can sustain for entire 4 minutes (So for example on a bike it could be 300 watts for entire 4 minutes).
      Then rest for 4 minutes.
      Then repeat this cycle of work-rest 3-5 times.

      So 4x4x4 would take 28 minutes (16 min work, 12 min rest). Add to that some 10+ min warmup.

      I think the goal is to reach heart rate north of 90%, ideally 95%+ and sustain it for like 90s+

      • Way above my fitness pay grade at the moment. I’ll stick with a HIIT program of one minute sprint with three minute rest for now. Thanks for clarifying!

    • What he meant was 4 minutes at a pace where at the end of the 4 minutes you’re pretty friend. Definitely not at a 20 sec or 60 sec sprint pace. Yeah I agree that’d be impossible. Lol.

      • Yeah, I guess this won’t be happening for me. The normal HIIT programs where it’s one minute on, 3 minutes off are already hard enough.😳🤣

  2. Hi both, great AMA as usual!!! Huummm, sounds interesting the amount of METS you need to provide on a weekly basis to rank among the top 95th percentile. ie: extensively training for IM top AG’s (polarized training with Swim/Bike/Run/weight workouts and Mobility) seems to be the perfect equation taking you above 60 VO2m no matter the age (plenty of my fellows a groupers “50/60” are in this area). I’d love to be able to perform such a VO2 max and cut down my training by 50% “just” focusing on the 4 pillars. Think I’ll give it a trial soon !!!

  3. In the VO2 max estimate test table, are the times measured in minutes or decimal for the Fast 1.5 mile test and the Rockport test? The table says to use decimal form for time. Other formulas I have seen measure it in actual minutes. If you measure in decimal form (e.g., 15 minutes = 0.25 of an hour), the results don’t seem to make sense. Am I missing something?

  4. Hi Peter, great AMA – I couldn’t find any mention of recovery/days off? Or is that not such an issue if the majority of your training is carried out in zone 2?
    My greatest challenge is letting go of the times I was able to produce in my 20’s and 30’s on the ergo, ie not chasing them down in my 50’s, and changing the mindset to the long game !

  5. You talk about needing to start this type of program in your 30s or 40s to reach goals in your 90s. What changes, if any, would you recommendatio for someone who doesn’t start until they are older (50s/60s) but still wants to compete in the “Centenarian Decathlon.”

  6. The green line for 95th percentile in your chart is, I am guessing, based on a population average at different ages. But I believe that the percentage of people who train drops off significantly near the aging extreme. The number of 30-year-olds in my gym is far greater than the number of 70-year-olds. I would bet that the 98th percentile for a person in their 70’s is not even currently training. If you were to remove the confounder by equalizing according to training time, I suspect that the dropoff due to age would be much less steep.

  7. So, question regarding the Cenetarian Decathalon and VO2 max regarding specific types of training. In the Podcast, you mention that even though VO2 max may be fine, if you swap from one training modality to the next, although your cardiorespiratory fitness may be fine, you may not be able to perform as well in that particular sport/exercise (ie, going from cycling to running). In the big picture of the Cenetarian Decathalon, would this not make an argument that cross training or CrossFit may be a good approach? Thanks for the great content.

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