In terms of human evolution, physically and cognitively functional centenarians represent an impressive example of successful healthy ageing. In fact, some would argue that people of 100 years of age and beyond represent the best example of successful human aging as they live about 50% longer than the world average. Progressive reductions in lung function, maximal oxygen uptake, maximal strength, and sarcopenia, are just some examples of the multi-factorial decline in physical function that is typically comes with ageing. The scientific literature is crystal clear about the positive effects of exercise on the physical capacity and longevity of extremely old people such as centenarians. Recognizing the strong relationship between ageing, exercise capacity, and independence, understanding the physiological basis of this multi-factorial decline has important practical significance in terms of identifying methods by which an independent lifestyle can be maintained.
One of the first documents written about centenarians was in 1899 by Young (On Centenarians and the Duration of the Human Race). Most centenarians were said to be moderate or small eaters, consumed little animal food, drank little alcohol, and were lucky enough to avoid illnesses during their life-time.
While living to an age of 100 years is nothing a new, it was far less frequent in the relatively recent past. Nowadays, some even speak of living to 120 and even past 150! In western countries, the centenarian population is growing at about 8% per year. Significant improvements in the quality of life and advances in medicine in the last century have, at least in part, influenced this growth. Such medical advances are particularly important because humans die because of disease and not because of “old age” per se.
Exercise and Centenarians
Studies agree that regular exercise appears to positively enhance health and independence in centenarians. But only recently, it was not until recently that direct assessments of centenarians have been made in laboratories. Enter French cyclist, Robert Marchand.
Robert Marchand – 105-year old cyclist & world record holder
Robert Marchand, a centenarian, a Frenchman, has been cycling for a very long time. Racing semi-professional in his 20’s, and only came back to cycling in his 60’s. He participated several major races, including Bordeaux to Paris and Paris to Roubaix. In 1992, he even cycled from Paris to Moscow. He has been studied in a research lab since he was 100 years old. At 101 years old, he held the 1-hour cycling record for the 100+ category. In 2017, he also set the 1-hour cycling record in the 105+ age group, covering 22.5 kilometers (14 miles) in one hour. At the age of 105 he was recognized as the world’s oldest competitive cyclist by the Guinness World Records. His performance and metrics were studied for the next several years. He performed tests on the cycling ergo meter to determine heart rate, VO2 max, and power. He trains with the 80/20 rule, 80% low intensity, 20% higher intensity. He rides about 5000 kilometers (3000 miles) per year. Very importantly, he has been able to keep his muscle mass and weight about the same. Ultimately, he was able to increase his VO2 max. His max heart rate stayed around the 130’s and his power increased from 90 Watts to 125 Watts.
Not There To Win, But To Increase Vitality
Robert Marchand wanted to increase his VO2 for the possibility to add quality and vitality to his current life, rather than trying to avoid death. Dying is inevitable, and he is not out to necessarily set new records, even though he set many.
The Robert Marchand experience is important for many reasons. Participation and performance are increasing at higher rates in the master groups. Many people are self-engineering bio-hacking regimens to increase longevity. Truly, we don’t have a lot of experience with so-called “old-old master athletes.” Among lifelong octogenarian athletes, new records of VO2 max are being set and are comparable to the average person in their 40s.
Robert Marchand’s Home Life and Diet
According to Dr. Veronique Billat, French Physiologist at the University of Paris-Sarclay, who has been studying the cyclist’s efforts for many years, Robert Marchand lives alone in his Parisian studio flat, but he is sustained by “optimism” as well as “laughter” and “many friends.” Also, his “natural curiosity” and “astonishment” keeps him going, according to his friends. She goes on to say that he eats “a la française,” meaning that he eats very simple, in the French way. In fact, he is not really on any specific diet, rather just eating to feel. Marchand does not count calories or the amount of protein he consumes each day. He just eats as he feels it. Again, the French as a culture dislike counting anything or putting limits on what they can eat. Just like children are very in tune with their satiety centers, most French people are as well. When they are done eating, they simply stop.
“If he starts eating meat again and builds more muscle, he can better this mark”
We cannot ignore the part of Robert Marchand’s story where he needed to be persuaded by his doctors to take up eating meat again. Interestingly, Marchand briefly veered away from his dietary recommendations. Prior to the Wednesday when he set the world hour record, he gave up eating meat for about a month. He did this in protest about how animals are mistreated in the factory production process. Certainly justified, but unfortunately Marchand quickly lost muscle mass and his performance suffered. For the hour record challenge, he measured 1.50 meters tall (4 feet 11 inches) and weighing just 50 kilograms (110 pounds). He also blames missing his 10-minute warning at the end of the event due to not eating properly. Three years earlier during his one-hour ride, he rode an additional 4.3 kilometers (or about 2.6 miles).
There’s no easy answer to this question, but Robert Marchand’s physiology suffered from not eating a rich protein source for just 30 days. Most of us take this for granted. His rapid decline in performance suggests that he experienced an “accelerated sarcopenia,” or loss of muscle mass. Muscle mass contributes greatly to his VO2 max as well as power output. Ultimately to his vitality.
Communication with Dr. Billat
Veronique Billat is Robert Marchands physiologist and probably knows more about how Marchands body works than anyone.
In my communications with Veronique Billat, she noted that If he starts eating meat again and builds more muscle, he can better this mark. Billat also signaled that Marchands diet is limited due to living on a limited budget. Certainly, eating quality meats could be limited on such a budget. This also highlights a scenario unique to centenarians. If you live to 100, you are very likely to outlive your retirement! Much has been written about this subject in the Wall Street Journal. Billat also insisted that Marchand is on no particular diet, and eats to feel, in accordance with the goals he is trying to accomplish. One thing that must be prefaced about Robert Marchand is that he only lives on a limited budget of some hundreds of Euros per month in Paris.
Robert Marchand’s Diet
He eats a banana, full fat yogurt, French bread, and coffee. Very typical French breakfast. He likely walks to the boulangerie (bread shop) each day and buys a fresh baguette. This is very engrained in the French Culture.
For lunch he eats a serving of chicken, sardines, mackerel in oil, or eggs and mushrooms, with green beans and perhaps some bread. Understand that the French do not eat an enormous amounts of bread, just a piece or two to go with the meal.
Most nights he eats a bowl of soup, some cheese, and some wine. Again, this is typical French everyday eating. Many nights, dinner is very simple and easily prepared. Most centenarians look for simple ways to prepare meals.
VO2 max is a measure of how much oxygen the body consumes during certain levels of activity. Marchand’s V02 max (maximal oxygen consumption) is the same as a man half his age who is sedentary or doesn’t do any sports. Marchand has a very large oxygen consumption thanks to an exceptional heart. Billat goes on to say, “He is very small in stature but his heart is very big. He’s got two essential qualities. A big heart that pumps a lot of blood, and he can reach high heart rate and VO2max values that are exceptional for his age.”
Marchands Workout Routine
He often rides his bike indoors and well as outside when the weather is nice. His normal cadence is 60 to 85 RPM, max heart rate is in the 130’s. He particularly likes to ride outside with his Paris cycling club L’Ardechois. He also uses resistance bands in his studio as well as performing pushups.
One of the things that is striking as we all read more about vegan diets, gluten-free, dairy-free, paleo, ketogenic and other schools of nutrition, is that Marchand follows none of them strictly, and at the same time, all of them mostly.
Of course, stepping back, whether his time improves in the future is beside the point. Moreover, as he ages, Marchand never loses sight of an essential goal: “One needs to keep his muscles working,” he said. He reportedly “rides every day on his home trainer and puts himself through outdoor training sessions on the road when the weather is good enough.”
After his 106th birthday, Marchand’s doctors advised him against competing for any more world records. He “retired,” but he is still racing and riding. He recently competed in a 4000-meter velodrome race in Paris. Marchand can be quoted saying, “c’est moi qui decide et je veux rouler” (I’m the one that decides and I want to ride a bike.) According to Marchand, he intends to keep pedaling as long as he can stretch his legs.
Marchand’s inspirational approach to life and healthy living has already won the world over.