How would you train if your objective were not to excel in a sporting event, but to remain vibrantly healthy to the end of a long life? I have mulled this over for some time, and talked about it on this blog in the past. I got the title for this post from Rich Roll’s podcast where he interviewed Dr. Peter Attia, an endurance athlete, MD, and longevity researcher. Dr. Attia is well-known for accomplishments like an open-water swimming round-trip crossing from Maui to Lanai. He has now turned his attention to training for longevity, or as he calls it, “winning the centenarian decathlon”. I also recently read about a similar theme on Clarence Bass’s website, which also lead me to the book Longevity Simplified by Dr. Howard Luks.
All these sources point to a similar theme. Important aspects of fitness include remaining flexible, proper movement techniques, and retaining good balance. Aside from these, the main idea is to use resistance training to preserve or increase muscle mass, and to use cardio training to improve metabolic fitness. For readers who may be wincing at the thought of all this “training”, Dr. Luks points out, as we’ve done here in the past, that aerobic exercise does not have to be formal training, it can be moving more throughout the day in activities of daily living, like taking the stairs instead of the elevator, parking further away from your destination, or pursuing “active transportation“.
To understand metabolic fitness, it helps to think about the medical condition called metabolic syndrome, where our metabolisms are impaired, an underlying cause of a variety of chronic diseases like type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Metabolic fitness is pretty much the opposite, where, for example, instead of having elevated insulin resistance, we strive for lowering our insulin resistance as much as possible. A major component of this is the health of the energy-powerhouses of our cells, the mitochondria.
So the new insight I’ve gained is that metabolic fitness involves optimizing mitochondrial functioning (both density of mitochondria and their efficiency). The consensus seems to be that this is best done by doing a large percentage of your exercise at a brisk pace but remaining in the aerobic zone. Dr. Attia has a precise definition of this pace based on how much lactate is accumulating in your blood. For those of us that don’t want to do blood lactate testing, an informal definition of this is based on perceived exertion: your breathing should be a bit challenged but you should be able to pass the talk test (although maybe you wouldn’t want to say too many sentences in a row). The remainder of your cardio training, only around 5 to 10%, should be higher intensity like intervals or sprints. This is a similar concept to polarized training which I’ve described in the past. But athletes training for performance in a sport might do as much as 20% of their cardio exercise at a higher intensity. If metabolic health is the priority, a smaller percentage should be higher intensity.
Interestingly, this is the kind of cardio training Clarence Bass has been advocating about for decades. And doing a high percentage of cardio at or below the maximum aerobic pace is a major component of Dr. Phil Maffetone’s base-building approach. The new insight about an important objective being optimum mitochondrial health just adds more credence to this.
One final point is that resistance training also plays a role in metabolic health, because preserving muscle mass means more places for mitochondria to grow, also leading to lowered insulin resistance.
All of this is good motivation to work harder at my resistance exercise, do lots of brisk aerobic work, and rein in my tendency to think “more is better” when it comes to high-intensity cardio.