This year the legendary marathoner Ed Whitlock died at age 86 on March 13 2017 of prostate cancer.
Famous in the running world Whitlock at 72 was the first at age 70 or older to run a marathon is less than 3 hours . He ran a 2:5:10 in 2003. What I find perhaps most amazing was the fact that his running speed in marathons changed so little in the age range when typically a person's O2 max decreases rapidly.See ref 2 below for description of how the decline in aerobic capacity accelerates with age which seems to contradict the literature than has shown a constant linear decline until about age 70 at which time a more rapid descent appears.
At age 70 he ran a 3:00. 23 marathon and at age 76 he ran 3:04.53 and at 80 he ran a 3:35 54.Over a six year period beginning at age 70 his marathon time decreased only about 4 minutes- a time difference easily attributable to varying weather-temperature and wind- and terrain differences over a 26.2 mile course or an extra bath room break.
Physiological testing was done on Whitlock at age 81 and his measured 02 Max was 54. This , as best I can find, is the highest recorded value for a man in his eighties. Earlier, Karlsen (3) reported a value of 50 in an 80 years old Norwegian in 2015.
Trappe et al(1)studied nine 80 years old endurance athletes ( they had exercised regularly for fifty years) and found their O2 max to be from 34-42.
The authors reviewed data from the literature and reported that in a total of 195 non athletic men in their eighties the measured O2 max ranged from 17 to 25.
One can speculate that Whitlock would have been able to run at least a sub 2:15 ( and probably better) marathon in his late 20s or early 30's as his 02 max would have probably been in the 80s which is the range measured in the typical world class marathoner.
While speculation about what some folks who are far out on the normal curve of aerobic capacity are able to do is interesting but perhaps more importantly what can the typical,healthy non-lifetime athlete in his/her eighties do physically. Here we are talking about people whose V02 max ranges from 17 to 25.
They should be able to finish Stage 1 on the Bruce protocol treadmill tests as this is thought to require a 17.5 02 uptake and be roughly comparable to a 15 minute per mile walk. Some would be able to actually finish Stage 2 which corresponds to a 15 minute per mile run. (It requires only 70% as much 02 uptake to walk a fifteen minute mile as it does to fun a mile in fifteen minutes.)According to the data from the CDC and ASM ,walking at less than 5 mph , golfing and ball room dancing would well be in the range of activities easily done by folks in this aerobic capacity range as well as light house work and all activities of daily care.
1)Trappe,S et al New records in aerobic power among octogenarians lifelong athletes. J.A. P 2013, 114 3-10
2) Fleg,Jl Accelerated longitudinal decline of aerobic capacity in healthy older adults. Circ.2005;112;674-682
3) Karlsen T. How to be 80 years old and have a v02 max of a 35 year old.Case reports in Medicine vol. 2015. id no 909561
1/17/18 addendum Several corrections made.