Get Fit to Function

These Three Exercises Can Help Make Functional Fitness Part of Your Regular Routine

As part of everyday living, you spend a lot of time bending, reaching, lifting, twisting, turning, and squatting, without even thinking about it. These movements show up in everything from carrying groceries, to playing with your grandkids, to just checking if the coast is clear when you back out of the driveway.
The ability to do these ordinary activities and movements is called functional fitness, and it can determine how active, healthy, and independent you are as you get older.
"We often take these movements for granted, but as we age, muscles naturally weaken and joints get stiffer, which makes everyday activities more difficult to do," says Dr. Amy Lo, a research fellow at Harvard-affiliated Hebrew SeniorLife's Hinda and Arthur Marcus Institute for Aging Research. "If you don't give enough attention to your functional fitness, you can have trouble engaging in even the simplest joys of life."
You can strengthen many muscles needed for functional fitness by meeting the recommended minimum guideline of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week, a regimen that includes both cardio and strength training.
However, it's common for people to settle into routine exercises that work only superficial muscles, such as biceps, pecs, and quadriceps. While those muscles are essential, you may end up neglecting what you need for all-around functional fitness, like flexibility in the neck, back, and hamstrings; range of motion in the shoulders; and deeper muscle strength in the core and buttocks.
"These are the areas that get most activated whenever you lift, bend, stretch, and turn," says Dr. Lo. "When these areas are weak, not only do you have trouble performing regular tasks, but you risk injury." Poor functional fitness also can make you less agile. A study in the March 2016 issue of Asian Nursing Research found that in adults ages 65 to 74, those who scored highest on tests to measure functional fitness had the lowest risk of falls.
Many senior centers and fitness clubs offer classes designed to improve functional fitness. You could also enlist a trainer who specializes in working with people your age to create an individual program.
In any case, you can work on functional fitness where you use it the most: at home. Here are three simple exercises that can improve the skills you need to function at your highest level. You can do them on their own, or add them to your regular exercise routine.
"Remember that it is never too late to improve your functional fitness and be as physically active as possible," says Dr. Lo.
This exercise strengthens the core and leg muscles. Sit on the edge of a chair with your hands crossed over your chest. Keep your feet flat on the floor, hip-width apart, and bring your toes underneath your knees. Lean forward slightly and press your heels into the floor as you slowly stand. Pause and then sit in the same slow and controlled manner. Do this five to 10 times.
If you need assistance standing, place your hands on your thighs or the chair's armrests for support. For a challenge, hold a medicine ball in front of you as you sit and stand.
This movement improves both balance and coordination. Stand with your legs together. Place one foot in front of the other, so the heel is just ahead of the toes. Then repeat with the other foot. Continue this walking motion for 20 to 25 steps; then turn around and walk in the same manner back to the starting point. Repeat this back-and-forth walking two or three times.
For more of a challenge, walk with your eyes closed or walk backward. You can also do this exercise with your arms outstretched or overhead to help with shoulder strength and flexibility.
This exercise increases upper body, shoulder, and neck rotation. Sit tall in a chair with your feet on the floor. Hold a medicine ball or an object of similar weight in front of your body, with arms extended and slightly bent. Twist to the right until the ball is over your right hip, or as far as comfortable. Turn your head and neck as you follow the ball's movement.
Make sure to rotate only your upper body and not your hips or legs. Pause, and then return to the starting point. Repeat the same twist-and-return motion to your left. Do this sequence five to 10 times. You also can perform this exercise while standing.