Getting More Fit Can Happen at Any Age

March 12, 2017 Updated: March 15, 2017

New research shows that you can improve athletic performance with proper training, even if you are over 100 years old. Traditional feeling among scientists is that aging is progressive and inevitable, and that your genetic programming causes you to age no matter what you do. 

French 105-year-old Robert Marchand poses during a photo session in Paris on January 5, 2017, a day after he set a new one-hour cycling record for his age, although he was already in a class of his own.  Marchand pedalled for 22,547 kilometres (14.01 miles) in the national velodrome in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, west of Paris, to the cheers of hundreds of spectators, and when he had finished he said he could have gone faster. (Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images)
French 105-year-old Robert Marchand  (Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images)

While aging may seem progressive and inevitable, one centenarian is challenging that trend. Robert Marchand, a 105-year-old cyclist, broke his previous world record for how far he could bicycle in one hour from 15.07 miles at age 101 to 16.73 miles at age 103. That is an 11 percent improvement after just two years of serious training, an impressive accomplishment at any age.

For two years, from age 101 to 103, Marchand trained by riding 3,000 miles per year, with 20 percent of his workouts being hard, intense riding and 80 percent being slow recovery riding.

A new study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology in December documents Marchand’s training program and the improvements in his markers of aging. Athletes can run, ride, swim, or ski faster if they improve their peak power output (strength) and their maximum ability to take in and use oxygen (VO2max). These measurements are used to track aging in non-athletes. Marchand’s VO2max increased by 13 percent and his peak power output increased by 39 percent over the two-year period.

These factors improved in Marchand because he was able to increase his maximal pedaling frequency by 30 percent, from 69 to 90 rotations per minute, and his ability to take in air through his lungs by 23 percent, from 57 to 70 liters per minute. His maximum heart rate and body weight did not change.

Training That Reduces Measures of Aging

Britain's David Heath celebrates after winning the men's 800 metres masters over-50s athletics ( Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images)
Britain’s David Heath celebrates after winning the men’s 800 metres masters over-50s athletics ( Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images)

Here is one training program that is typical of the way competitive athletes in endurance sports train to become faster.

Muscle-Sugar-Depleting Workout: Once a week, you must exercise long enough to use up most of the sugar stored in your most-used muscles. Muscles use primarily fat and sugar for energy. You have an almost infinite amount of fat stored in your body, but only a very limited amount of sugar stored in the liver and muscles. Sugar requires less oxygen than fat to fuel your muscles, so when you run out of sugar stored in your muscles, you have to slow down.

Exercising long enough to deplete muscles of their stored sugar supply increases the amount of sugar they can store and also increases your ability to move faster for longer. The faster you move, the quicker you use up your muscles’ stored supply of sugar.

Intense Oxygen Deficit Workout: The limiting factor of how fast you can move is the time it takes to move oxygen into the muscles. You can increase your ability to take in and use oxygen by using interval workouts in which you run up a severe oxygen debt and have to gasp for air, twice per week. You also have to damage the muscles so that when they heal, they become stronger. To do this you must put great pressure on your muscles by moving very fast.

A short interval lasts less than 30 seconds. You can do lots of them in a single workout because in less than 30 seconds, you do not build up much lactic acid and do less muscle damage. A long interval lasts longer than two minutes. You should do only a limited number of these intervals because they cause considerable muscle damage and can take a long time for the muscles to recover.

Recovery Workouts: Intense interval workouts cause considerable muscle damage, and it usually takes at least 48 hours for muscles to heal, so each intense workout requires easier workouts on the following day. Do at least four a week.

Example of a Weekly Training Program
Sunday: Race or depletion workout
Monday: Recovery workout
Tuesday: Short intervals
Wednesday: Recovery workout
Thursday: Long intervals
Friday: Recovery workout
Saturday: Recovery workout

How to Apply These Concepts to an Ordinary Exercise Program

While the average exerciser is likely to spend far less time in their sport, they can still benefit from following the same training principles. Increasing evidence shows that intense exercise is more effective than casual exercise, so plan to introduce at least some intense intervals into your program. You can gain the health benefits and help to prevent injuries if you:

  1. Plan to exercise every day
  2. Realize that if you are training properly, your legs are likely to feel sore every morning. If your legs do not feel fresh after a 5- to 10-minute warm up, take the day off.
  3. Stop your workout immediately if you feel a tightness, discomfort or pain in one area.
  4. Stop for the day as soon as your legs start to feel heavy during a workout.

Caution: If you have any pre-existing medical conditions, check with your doctor before beginning any intense workout training program.

Dr. Gabe Mirkin is a sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. This article was originally published on Subscribe to his free weekly Fitness & Health newsletter.