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Exercise won't slow effects of aging, researchers say

But researchers tout activity's other benefits

DALLAS -- Exercise can't hold off the effects of aging, but it can improve an elderly person's chances of hanging onto an independent lifestyle, researchers said, citing a new study that brought both good and bad news.

A treadmill test given to different age groups showed that as people aged, their aerobic capacity -- the amount of oxygen consumed while exercising -- declined at higher rates with each passing decade whether they exercised or not.

Researchers knew the rate of decline would worsen with age but were surprised by the magnitude, said Dr. Jerome L. Fleg, a cardiologist, lead author of the study, and a medical officer at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute in Maryland. ''I guess we were a little disappointed that regular exercise didn't make a difference in the rate of decline," he said.

He said, however, that those who exercise end up ahead because their aerobic capacity was higher from the start.

For the study published in yesterday's online edition of Circulation, the American Heart Association's journal, researchers analyzed treadmill tests from 435 men and 375 women ages 21 to 87 in the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging.

The aerobic capacity was measured in the tests about every four years for a median of 7.9 years. During their 20s and 30s, the volunteers' aerobic capacity declined at a rate of 3 percent to 6 percent per decade. Those in their 70s and beyond faced a decline of more than 20 percent per decade, the researchers found.

Fleg said participants filled out a detailed questionnaire on physical activities and were divided into groups depending on the strenuousness of their exercise. He said those who exercised more strenuously had a higher aerobic capacity than those who didn't.

''People who have low aerobic capacity may not even be able to make their bed," said Dr. Nieca Goldberg, chief of women's cardiac care at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. ''What I really don't want people to take away from this study is 'don't bother.' "

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