In my last blog offering I shared Dr Peter Attia’s framework for longevity and improved health span especially in one’s “marginal decade”, or how you want to live out the last ten years of your life? What activities would you be engaged in and how would you be living? In his book “Outlive”, Dr Attia also outlines his belief that exercise is one of the most potent domains in terms of improving one’s health span. In this month’s article, I wanted to share with you my very own Vital Lifestyle. What motivates me to move and my own take on fitness and how that has evolved.
Recently I was talking to a coaching client who mentioned that part of their health and wellbeing vision was “to be fit.” Invariably when faced with such a response my next line of questioning defaults to – “Describe what fit looks like for you.” For this person it was about building resilience and having a “physical buffer” when faced with challenges at work. It is useful to note that fitness is a personal journey; and what constitutes "fitness" may vary from person to person based on individual goals, preference and ability. In simple terms, exercise involves placing a “stress” on the body. The body adapts to the demand, and overtime we experience a benefit or change in how our body functions and what it is capable of.
For me, fitness involves being able to engage in more activities that fill my vitality cup. Vitality can be defined as the positive aliveness and having access to the energy within oneself. It is the resource that includes physical, psychological, emotional and social energy. Optimal wellbeing and being vital relies on having the resources and capacity to meet the demands at hand. Vitality is key to how we all show up every day. Having a foundation of vitality gives me the abundance of energy needed for myself, to share with others and to meet the demands of my life.
Some fifteen years BC (before child), fitness was about having the ability to engage in outdoor adventures with friends. Every weekend I would find my-self either mountain biking, hiking, climbing or trail running. At the time I never thought of myself as training, only engaging in activities that I enjoyed and a lifestyle that kept me vital. I did of course still perform regular studio based resistance workouts, that complemented my recreational pursuit, building on strength, stability and postural balance.
My fitness regime today has changed significantly, navigating physical changes to my body, and time constraints that come with having a family. Of course, my love for the outdoors is something that I intend to share with my son Samuel, although less frequently with most weekend fully booked. So, fitness now is about me having the ability to throw on a laden pack and hike or ski up Victoria’s highest peak (N.B. instead of doing this every weekend, as in my formative years, it’s about having the reserve to do it 3 monthly). It’s also about having the capacity to keep up with my energetic son and being a positive role model.
Climbing Mount Bogong is something that I hope to continue in my “marginal decade”, and is part of my “centenarian decathlon”. Some may think I am delusional to have a lofty goal of climbing Victoria’s highest peak in my 10th decade, but I am inspired by others. Like John (81), who I met a few years ago climbing and backcountry skiing the snow gullies of the forementioned mountain. Or Joyce who I met on the Routeburn Track in the South-island of New Zealand. At 84 she was agile like a mountain goat, and the spriteliest of all the member I met from the Canterbury tramping club, carrying her own 8kg pack for three days of back country adventures.
Being inspired and having a vision or goal is one thing, but having a workable plan of action that is sustainable in one’s life, is another thing all together. To keep on track with my centenarian decathlon goal the first step is to reassess the gaps in my current fitness position. I do this through reflecting on my wheel of fitness, the various components that I deem important for my Vital lifestyle, now and into the future.
If you read various physiology and exercise text’s they will discuss varying components of fitness. These may include: Cardiovascular endurance or aerobic capacity, muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility or mobility, stability, balance, coordination, agility, speed and power… Just to name a few! These are all different aspects or qualities that contribute to overall physical fitness. They can all be developed by placing varying demands on the body, that over time result in the specific adaptations outlined.
In my wheel of fitness, I have singled out six key components: Cardiovascular (efficiency and maximal output), strength, stability, mobility and balance. This subjective assessment tool involves me rating my satisfaction level (out of 10) in all of these components, with lower scores indicating areas for me to develop my training. The aim is to develop my perceived gaps, building capacity so that I can live my vital lifestyle, now and in my marginal decade.
As you can see from my example, cardiovascular fitness (both efficiency and maximal output) is an area that I currently acknowledge as needing more attention. This was quite different 25 years ago, when I regularly clocked up countless hours trail running and biking. I was rudely reminded of this back in February when pack carrying 35kg of supplies up the mountain in thirty-degree heat. Technically speaking, I was working at my Vo2 max and my body wasn’t sufficiently conditioned. Resting half way, I flippantly told my friend that; “I never wanted to be one of those 50-year old’s who had a heart attack on the mountain”. Interpreting the concern on his face, I would need to invest more time in regular CV conditioning to not make this a reality! This incident motivated me sufficiently to re-engage in some regular swimming to build capacity in my cardiovascular fitness. It would also supplement my resistance training, stability and mobility work.
The key for me was finding an activity that was relatively time efficient. Spending hours on the bike is just not realistic these days. Also, an activity that respected my bodies inability to do sustained high impact activity such as running. Chronic calf strains from years of marathon training make this no longer possible. Finally, it needed to be an activity that I could enjoy. Initially the barrier of getting to a pool was an obstacle, however I was fortunate not to have any issues with washing or drying my hair!
Swimming has been revelatory! The necessity to focus on breathing and ones stroke centres the mind, invoking a sense of calm and equanimity post workout. Learning how to better regulate breathing makes swimming a great conditioner for learning how to climb a mountain and not “red line,” as in my February pack hauling experience. Now that I have purchased my wetsuit, I can do some open water swimming that allows me to enjoy a natural blue space and my need to spend more time in nature.
When I have some free time on weekends, I also intend to increase specificity with some “rucking” up the Glasgow fire trail. This involves putting weight in a pack and walking directly up Mount Dandenong on a rocky unstable path. Great for Vo2 max training, but also strength, balance and eccentric control as your muscles arrest your fall descending the mountain. Important training for fall prevention!
So, what does my week look like from an activity perspective?
2-3 (45 minutes) sessions of functional resistance training, interspersed with mobility, stability & balance exercise
2-3 (30-60 minute) sessions of cardio vascular activity: 80% of time in Zone 2 (can just maintain conversation, 20% Vo2 (at my limit)
1 dedicated stability (40 minutes clinical Pilates)
My Components of Fitness
In regards to my wheel of fitness, here is a summary of the fitness components and what they entail.
Cardiovascular Fitness: Also known as cardiorespiratory endurance or aerobic capacity, this component relates to the ability of the cardiovascular system (heart, blood vessels, lungs) to efficiently supply oxygen and nutrients to working muscles during sustained physical activity.
Zone 2 -aerobic efficiency. This works the CV system at approximately 60-70% max heart rate. (i.e. A speed that you can still maintain a conversation, but at a pace that that the conversation might be a little strained.) This form of training help maintains the health and efficiency of your mitochondria- your muscle cells “power house” (important for metabolic health)
Vo2 Max- maximal aerobic output. This involves intense training intervals between 3- 8 minutes at close to your perceived max. Dr Peter Attia recommends 4min work/ 4min recovery 4-6 sets. Studies show that Vo2 max declines roughly 10% per decade. In Dr Attia’s words, Vo2 max training keeps you functionally younger by “lifting your ceiling” for maximum oxygen uptake.
Resistance Training: Also known as strength training, where one places a demand on our muscles and bones to get stronger by lifting and progressive overload. After the age of 40 you lose muscle, such that by the age of 80 you are likely to have 40% less muscle tissue. This atrophy impacts functional strength, metabolism and metabolic health. Strength training helps develop fast twitch muscle fibres that play an important role in fall prevention. One of the most important things we can do for quality longevity is maintain strength and muscle mass!
My preference is to always train movement patterns rather than muscles in isolation. This increases functional capacity and is more time efficient. There is a time and place for isolated movement when managing injury and where there is a need to teach activation. Movement is medicine, but consult an exercise specialist for the appropriate dose and prescription!
Mobility: Also known as flexibility, represents the range of motion available around joints and muscles; it allows for ease of movement and can help prevent injury. If you don’t use it, you lose it. This is true of all components of fitness, but is especially noticed with mobility when we age. When I was in my 20’s, mobility work was what I told others to do, often skipping what I preached. Now in my 50’s it is a non-negotiable that I need to engage in every day to maintain optimal movement, function and injury prevention. Some key areas to maintain mobility: Ankle, hip, thoracic spine and don’t forget your big toe!
Stability: Is the ability for your body to maintain structural integrity while producing and absorbing force. It’s more than “core strength.” It involves the coordination of muscles, joints, and the nervous system to keep your body and joints in optimal alignment.
Having good stability is important for several reasons:
Injury prevention: Stable joints and balanced muscle activation reduce shearing forces through joints during physical activities. Think of a crane on a building site. If it doesn’t have a stable base, it will fall over and break!
Performance enhancement: Stability allows for more efficient movement patterns that can improve performance in sports and life. Think of the analogy of being unable to shoot a cannon ball from a canoe. Without the stable base you cannot project power. Similarly, without stable joints, your large muscles of locomotion can’t effectively do their work.
Balance: is the ability to maintain control and stability while performing various movements or positions. It involves the coordination of multiple muscles, joints, and sensory systems to keep the body aligned, steady and upright. In my training I challenge numerous single leg drills, on unstable surfaces and with eyes close. As previously mentioned, maintaining fast twitch muscle fibres is key to reaction and fall prevention, especially when descending a mountain. J
Vital Lifestyle Defined...
Some questions worth considering…
What is your Vital Lifestyle and how would you like to spend your “marginal decade?”
What does being fit look like? What does your wheel of fitness entail?
Where are your gaps and where can you improve?
What are you willing to experiment with next week?
What support can you harness?
Images from the mountain: