Is functional fitness for you?

functional fitness

Several years ago, I was in a serious car accident. I broke my ankle in multiple places; repairing it required two surgeries plus physical therapy over the course of six months. After the first surgery, I wasn’t allowed to put any weight on my right foot for three months. During my hospitalization and recovery, I discovered muscles I never knew I had, much less needed. I was bruised and battered, didn’t have the upper-body strength to use crutches, and could only use my left leg to get up and down. I remember telling my nurse, “If I had known this was going to happen, I would have gotten in better shape.”

Of course, none of us know ahead of time when an accident is going to occur. But it doesn’t take a car accident or other severe trauma for us to hurt ourselves. A slip or fall, or even an everyday action as simple as getting out of bed or bending down to pick something up, can cause a sprain or strain. And it seems the older we get, the more easily those kinds of annoying little injuries happen. The resulting pain can limit our mobility and negatively impact our quality of life. No one wants that.

Fortunately, functional fitness can help prepare your body to better withstand the activities of daily living or an unexpected accident. The idea is to use different types of exercises to simulate how your muscles and joints move as you go about your day or engage in activities you enjoy. For example, getting a box of cereal down off a high shelf in your pantry would require stretching, grasping, and possibly twisting. Kayaking would involve arm strength, shoulder rotation, balance, and core strength. How many of these common movements do you do every day?

  • Stretching
  • Reaching
  • Bending
  • Lifting
  • Squatting
  • Balancing
  • Sitting down
  • Standing up

Functional fitness can make all of these movements easier and safer. Not only that, it can help you improve your balance, posture, coordination, flexibility, and endurance—all things that take on added importance as we age. It doesn’t require any special equipment or a gym membership, and exercises and intensity can be tailored to your fitness level.

Unlike machine weight training, which isolates individual muscles, functional fitness exercises generally involve multiple muscle groups as well as joints. In real life, we don’t use just one muscle group in isolation like we would during “leg day” at the gym. Most functional fitness exercises work multiple muscle groups at a time in coordination. Examples include exercises like squats, planks, lunges, leg lifts, and even the old-school push-up. You can find some functional fitness workout suggestions here and here. If you prefer a lower-impact workout, tai chi, yoga, and water exercises are all good choices.

Most functional fitness exercises can be done simply by using your own body weight for resistance. As you progress, you can add weights, resistance bands, or other equipment like medicine balls to increase the intensity of your workout, but it’s not necessary. Experts urge caution when adding resistance to high-impact exercises, as it can put joints and soft tissues at greater risk of injury. And speaking of caution, before starting any new exercise or fitness program, it’s always best to check with your doctor.

If you’re looking for an easy way to boost your quality of life and decrease pain and stiffness, why not give functional fitness a try? Your future self might just thank you for it.

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