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We can't avoid getting older, but evidence is growing that we may be able to avoid some of the sicknesses that go along with it.

Disorders such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension and adult onset diabetes don't have to be the natural consequences of aging, says Wendy Kohrt, an associate professor of medicine at Washington University."We feel they are more related to physical inactivity, and that many of them could be avoided through exercise and by maintaining an active lifestyle," she said.

Kohrt recently completed a first-of-its kind, five-year study in which 110 sedentary people ages 60 to 71 were put through a rigorous exercise program. It reaped such rewards as seeing 73-year-old Clara Wolff beaming with pride after a six-mile run.

Kohrt's study group recruited 53 men and 57 women from the St. Louis area for a yearlong regimen. By year's end, all the participants were exercising 45 to 50 minutes a day, five days a week, at heart rates 80 percent to 90 percent of their maximum heart rate.

"Most were walking or jogging," Kohrt said. "The goal was to get each participant to do the equivalent of 15 to 20 miles per week by the end of the study."

All of the exercise was done under supervised conditions at the medical school's indoor track and gym.

In the later stages of the program, those who could progressed from walking to jogging. Those who continued to walk but had difficulty increasing their heart rates on a level surface exercised on treadmills with elevated grades.

And the results surprised a lot of people.

"Earlier studies had tended to show that older people were not adaptable, that they couldn't benefit from cardiovascular programs like younger people, and women were not expected to do as well as men," Kohrt said.

"But after a year in our program, both the men and the women improved their cardiovascular function 20 (percent) to 25 percent - the same improvement level typically noted in studies of much younger people," she said.

Doctors know the aging process kicks in around ages 35 to 40, when subtle declines begin in physical performance. Kohrt says she had believed her study would help pin down just when in later life the big decline begins.

"We thought the people who were closer to 70 would not respond as well to exercise as the people in their early 60s," she said. "But it didn't come out that way. Those who were 70 appeared to get the same relative benefits as those who were 60."

"It seems to me that the central message here is that older people are remarkably responsive to exercise," said William Evans, chief of the Human Physiology Laboratory at the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston.

Evans' own study on high-intensity weightlifting for the elderly last year showed that even up to age 100, such exercise can triple muscle strength and cause significant increase in muscle size.

"I think there's been a myth for a very long time that at some point as we grow older, we lose our ability to respond to exercise. I think that with whatDr. Kohrt has seen and what we have seen in our strength training is that it is just that - a myth," he said in a telephone interview.

"It has become obvious that when older people resign themselves to that state, it's a downward spiral," Evans said.

About 300 applicants were screened to get the 110 participants, and they had to be ready to work hard, Kohrt says. But some people couldn't take it, she says.

"It's hard to push some people because they feel they've done a lot if they've walked a mile. We wanted them doing four miles a day," Kohrt said.

"We wanted the most vigorous exercise that we thought they could handle. I think the majority expressed some reservations at the beginning, but before it was over they were actually doing things they couldn't even imagine before they started," she said.

Every three months the participants underwent interim testing, and their exercise assignments were adjusted weekly. At the end of the study, the initial tests were repeated to determine the progress.

Not all the progress was physical.

"Take Clara Wolff, for instance," she said. "When she came in, she said she might walk, but she would never run. And eventually she ran six miles. That kind of thing makes you feel good about yourself."

"Now life is a smorgasbord," Wolff said. "Now I'm not afraid to try something. And if I like it, I go back for more."

Wolff said her only complaint was that once the program ended, she had no good place to walk, run and work out.

"I think I'm going to make that my next project," she said. "Elderly people who want to keep it going under the proper conditions really have no place to turn."

"The message we want to try and get out to people is that these bodies were meant - and made - for moving. They're not made for a sedentary lifestyle," Kohrt said. "Technology has made life too easy for us. We no longer have to expend that much energy."