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February 17, 2017

How a 105-year-old is shaking up the science of aging

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At 105 years old, a French man is setting world records on his bike—and prompting some scientists to rethink how we age, Gretchen Reynolds reports for the New York Times' "Phys Ed."  

In January, Robert Marchand biked around an indoor track for one hour at the fastest pace he could muster. In the end, he completed more than 14 miles and set a world record for cyclists 105 and older—a category created just for him. Marchand had already set the record in that category for individuals 100 and older in 2012, Reynolds writes.

Success sparks researchers' interest

It was during his preparations for his 2012 ride that Marchand first grabbed the attention of Veronique Billat, a professor of exercise science at the University of Evry-Val d'Essonne in France.

The "conventional wisdom," Reynolds writes, is that "it is very difficult to significantly add to aerobic fitness after middle age." In most cases, VO2 max, which is a measure of how well the body uses oxygen, begins to decline after age 50 even if someone frequently exercises.

But Billat in previous research had found that "if older athletes exercised intensely, they could increase their VO2 max," Reynolds writes. That said, Billat had never tested her theories on a centenarian—and she wanted to get Marchand in the lab. She recently published her findings on Marchand in the Journal of Applied Physiology.

Study establishes new routine

Marchand said after he had retired, he started cycling most days at a leisurely pace. But Billat, whose research has focused on the effects of strenuous exercise, wanted to shake things up.

First Billat and colleagues measured Marchand's VO2 max and other indicators of his cardiorespiratory fitness, which were "healthy and well above average for someone of his age," Reynolds writes. It was around this time—in 2012—that Marchand set the cycling record for individuals over 100.

Next, Billat had Marchand start a more strenuous exercise routine. "Under [the] program, about 80 percent of his weekly workouts were performed at an easy intensity, the equivalent of a 12 or less on a scale of 1 to 20," Reynolds writes. For the other 20 percent of workouts, Marchand upped his intensity to a 15 or above. For the study, intensity was measured in revolutions per a minute while cycling.

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Two years later, Billat brought Marchand back into the lab to evaluate his fitness. He'd managed to increase his VO2 max by 13 percent, and his overall aerobic capacity was comparable to "a healthy, average 50-year-old," Reynolds writes.

Soon afterward, Marchand, at 103, biked 17 miles in one hour and set the record for individuals over 100—again. And in January, Marchand followed it up with his latest success, the 14-mile ride, which established the record for those ages 105 and older. 

What it means

Billat said Marchand's success suggests "we can improve VO2  max and performance at every age." But Reynolds also notes that other factors besides exercise—such as Marchand's strong social network and simple diet—may help explain his good health and athletic abilities. He may also just be genetically unique.

"But for those of us who hope to age well, [Marchand's] example is inspiring" and, Billet says, still incomplete," Reynolds writes. "Disappointed with [January's] record-setting ride, [Marchand] believes that he can improve his mileage, she says, and may try again, perhaps when he is 106" (Reynolds, New York Times, 2/8).

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