How can I stay as active as possible as I get older?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

I’m in my 80s, and I’ve lost some mobility over the years. How can I continue to stay as active as possible?

DEAR READER:

Most of us take for granted the stamina, strength, balance, coordination and range of motion needed to perform even simple acts such as getting out of bed, heading down the stairs and walking around the block. But when we lose these basic skills, we begin to understand how much of living well relies on being able to move.

At first, you can compensate for an impairment caused by health problems or just aging. You learn to move slower and more deliberately, for example. But don’t try to move less, just more slowly. If you move less, you may gain weight, stop exercising and withdraw from social relationships. The resulting physical, emotional and mental decline further restricts your mobility.

You can take steps to prevent future mobility impairments and reduce existing ones. The single most important thing you can do is to engage regularly in physical activity.

Regular activity can help you control your weight. It’s the key to keeping your muscles and bones strong, your joints working properly, your heart healthy and your metabolism balanced. The more you move, the better your balance will be. And that’s on top of all the other health benefits of regular exercise. Those include a greatly reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, depression and dementia.

Get some of your activity from exercise. Start with aerobic exercise, like walking, bicycling or water aerobics. Add in some strength training, flexibility and balance exercises.

Also strive to increase your routine daily physical activities. For example, make it a point to go up and down the stairs more often. Park further away from the grocery store. Or plant the flowers you’ve always wanted to grow.

If you’re in pain, all this activity may seem impossible. But in many cases, exercise can actually help you feel better. If you have osteoarthritis, for example, regular exercise not only helps maintain joint function, but also relieves stiffness and decreases pain and fatigue.

Healthy adults should aim for 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day, five days a week. But even if you can’t do the recommended amount, be as physically active as your abilities and conditions allow.

What’s “moderate” exercise? Experts define it scientifically as the amount of physical activity needed to cause your body to use a certain amount of oxygen, measured at a “metabolic equivalent,” or MET. Moderate exercise is in the range of 3 to 6 METs. Briskly walking at between 3 to 5 miles per hour (like walking 2 miles in 30 minutes) qualifies. So does leisurely bicycling, swimming, playing golf (if you walk the course), cleaning your home and mowing your lawn.

You don’t have to exercise vigorously (defined as more than 6 METs) to achieve major health benefits. So you don’t need to go jogging or perform calisthenics, for example. However, vigorous exercise is healthy for most people.

Here’s the bottom line: There is no pill as good for your health as regular moderate exercise.