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Meet the man who has changed the rules of aging

 

Meet Robert Marchand, who despite his modest posture (he stands only 4’11”) is considered a giant when it comes to optimal aging.

In February 2012 Robert Marchand set a world record in a track cycling covering over 15 miles in 1 hour. What was remarkable about this record, was that at the time Marchand was 100 year old. I don’t know how many people of your acquaintance are over 100 year old. By a virtue of being a geriatrician I know quite a number. Very few of them are able to walk under their own power, without relying on a walker. None live independently.

“I could have done better” said Marchand shortly after the race. As it turns out, he wasn’t kidding.

In 2014, then 103 year old Marchand cycled 16.7 miles in 1 hour. Just so that you have a point of reference, the world record belongs to Ondrej Sosenko, 26 year old Czech, who cycled 30.8 miles in 1 hour in 2005. Marchand was able to keep up at over the half the speed.

Fast-forward to January 2017. At 105 , Robert Marchand set a velodrome cycling world record by pedaling 14 miles in 1 hour. Mind, the record is in category of 105-and-over, created just for him. Still, he believes he could have done even better, had he not missed an sign telling him he has 10 minutes left to cycle. “Otherwise I would have gone faster, I would have posted a better time. I was not tired. I thought my legs would hurt, but they don’t. My arms hurt, but you have to hurt somewhere.”

Why is it important for you to know aside from the sheer awesomeness of his achievement?

Robert Marchand has shattered the ages-old belief that decline is an inherent, inevitable aspect of aging.

He agreed to have his body studied at University of Evry-val-d’Essonne. The researchers have tracked different measurements from body mass, maximum heart rate to VO2 max (a measurement that tells us how much oxygen can body use at the peak performance). Under normal circumstances all these measurements are expected to steadily decline with age.
Interestingly, Robert’s VO2max increased by 13% between 2014 and 2017.
Another measurement, peak power output (a measurement of exercise intensity) increased from 90 to 125 watts, by a whopping 39%.

Veronique Bilat, his physiologist, says that Marchand has an advantage over most of us. He has a big heart that pumps a lot of blood. Also, he can reach high values of heart rate for his age, up to 130s (that can support a bigger effort), that are exceptional for his age. She, too, believes that he could have gone faster, but was held back by another factor. Robert stopped eating meat for about a month before the race, after seeing a program on inhumane treatment of meat-farm animals.

Did he adhere to a stringent, killer routine to achieve his records? Quite to the contrary.

Marchand’s lifestyle is a study in moderation.

He rises at 6 am every morning and goes to sleep at 9 pm. He does not push his limits when exercising. He tries to keep his heart rate below 110. “For the last five years I have decided not to go for the rides of more than 100 km, There is no point in going overboard. I want to keep cycling for some time yet.” Robert lives in a little apartment in the suburbs of Paris and supports himself on a small pension of about $950. He reads daily, mostly newspaper L’Humanite. “I’m now looking for the rival” he says. Setting goals for himself seems to be a big part of who he is, say his friends.

Robert led a fairly active life: he did gymnastics, weightlifting, and some cycling in his youth, up until the age of 36. He worked as a firefighter in France, a truck driver and sugarcane planter in Venezuela and lumberjack in Canada. In his later years he worked as a gardner and a wine merchant and did not retire until the age of 89. He returned to cycling at age 67. He rode almost daily, including extremely long rides (from Paris to Moscow in 1992). Currently, for his exercise Marchand rides stationary bike for an hour a day. He is a believer in the interval training: 80% of his milage is done at light RPE (rate of perceived exertion) and 20 % at hard RPE.

Robert never smoked. He drinks half a glass of wine most days. There is plenty of fruits, vegetables and yogurt in his diet. He eats very little meat (none for the last several months) and little coffee. He also limits the starches. “I have never abused anything” he says.

What does this extraordinary achievement of a diminutive Frenchman means for the rest of us?

Years ago, Dr. Kenneth Cooper, a father of modern aerobic, famously said:

“We don’t stop exercising because we are old; we become old when we stop exercising.”

Marchand shows that theoretically there’s no upper age limits to training” says Michael Joyner, a physiologist from Mayo Clinic.

Within the recent years there have been multiple reports on “physical superagers”, who retain not only independence, but indeed a physical prowess into their 90s and beyond. Some may argue that this is just a question of such instances being reported with higher frequency. My personal opinion is that we are observing a profound shift in the way aging is being defined.

Last three decades equipped us with knowledge that many processes that we deemed irreversible aren’t quite so. When I went to medical school, diseases like coronary disease or diabetes were considered irreversible, a label for life. They never went away, only got worse. Thanks to the pioneers like Dr. Ornish and Dr. Esselstyn we know now that both condition can be reversed with improving lifestyle. Within last two years, two reports came out suggesting that similar lifestyle modification can prevent dementia. We are beginning to understand the meaning of epigenentics, a branch of genetics which explains how external factors, such as diet and physical activity can turn on and off genes responsible for different physical conditions, including cancer.

Have you heard of “the hundredth monkey” theory?

The hundredth monkey effect refers to sudden and spontaneous change in social behavior, idea or belief. Once the idea reaches critical mass, (i.e. the hundredth monkey), it spreads rapidly to other groups and may become the new norm. In the original study, macaque monkeys on Japanese island of Koshima learned to wash sweet potatoes. This behavior spread not only to the younger generations, but was also observed in other monkeys on nearby islands, without any direct contact. While the hundredth monkey theory itself has been discredited (for one, there were only 59 monkeys on the island), there have been many other examples of social changes following the similar pattern. For more on this read Malcolm Gladwell’s eloquently written book “The Tipping Point”.

I don’t know if fabulous Robert Marchand is the “hundredth monkey” or eighty ninth. But believe a person who spent her entire life following the process of aging:

We are the generation that will age differently from our parents. Our understanding of what it means to age is rapidly approaching the tipping point, thanks to the trailblazers like Marchand. What seems now like a miracle may likely be the new norm just few decades from now.

Marchand says: “Basically, I am like everybody else. I am lucky that I haven’t got any major health problems. I do physical exercises every day. It works out my whole body and keeps me supple. Some people when they reach 80 years old, start playing cards and they stay immobile. Not me. I have never been able to keep still. My advice to anyone, young or old, is to keep moving.”

It is an excellent advice, my friend.  My guess is that you have been reading this article for long enough. What do you say, we stand up, stretch and head out for a walk or a bicycle ride?

Photo: Reuters

by Anna Lamnari, M.D.

Resources:
Record setting 105-year-old French cyclist is your new inspirational sports hero.
Mashable, Sam Laird 01/04/2017
Robert Marchand (cyclist) Wikipedia 02/16/2017
What we can learn from this 105 years-old cyclist. Outside, Charles Ebbers, 02/03/2017
J Appl Physiol, 2016 Dec 29 Bilat VL et al Case studies in physiology: maximal oxygen consumption and performance in a centenarian cyclist.
105-year-old Frenchman sets hour record. Velonews, UCI Communication service and AFP, 02/17/2012

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