You may have heard the buzz about functional fitness, a type of exercise that focuses on strengthening your everyday movements rather than simply building your muscles. It's being increasingly marketed to older adults, and for good reason. As we get older, our bodies naturally lose muscle, mobility, and flexibility, which in turn can impair the ability to live life to its fullest. Simple tasks such as carrying groceries or putting away dishes can become taxing.
Functional-fitness programs offer an antidote to those changes by incorporating exercises that involve multiple joints and muscles and mimic everyday movements. Instead of a move that flexes only your elbows, for example, a functional exercise might use the elbows, shoulders, spine, hips, knees, and ankles. As a result, the benefits can also include better balance and coordination.
You know that an exercise trend is powerful when it gets the military to rethink how soldiers are trained. So it speaks volumes that the U.S. Army invested millions of dollars in functional-fitness programs in 2012. Think of it as training with a purpose—whether it's getting up from a chair or sprinting with a heavy pack on your back.
Walking, cycling, or other aerobic activities are important for your cardiovascular health, but they don't really stem the decline in muscle. For that you need strength training. In a small study that was sponsored a few years ago by the American Council on Exercise, older adults who followed a functional-exercise program for four weeks experienced greater improvements than those who did a traditional strength routine. They improved their shoulder flexibility by 43 percent, significantly increased their lower- and upper-body strength, and improved their agility and balance. Several participants reported they found it easier to "reach for things" or had "better balance." One woman said it was easier to look over her shoulder while backing up a car.
More research is needed to fully evaluate the benefits of functional training, but those findings are especially compelling because the participants were already exercisers going into the study; they did 30 to 45 minutes of aerobic exercise and 10 to 15 minutes of resistance training three days a week.
"It's similar to a professional golfer who specifies his training to the actual golf swing, making sure that movement is as fast and strong as it can be," said John Porcari, Ph.D., the study's lead author and director of the clinical exercise physiology program at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. "Most of the exercises that athletes perform are geared specifically to the demands of their sport. It should be the same for adults, catering to the demands of everyday life."
This type of training does have its detractors. Some experts argue that it's misleading to consider any exercise not functional. Even traditional dumbbell curls, though they target only the biceps, also provide functional benefits around the elbow joint. Overuse might also be a concern, according to Wayne Westcott, Ph.D., director of fitness research programs at Quincy College in Quincy, Mass. "If a person performs the same movement numerous times during the day," he said, "repeating that movement pattern with added resistance may actually increase the risk of overuse injury to the involved joints." He recommends doing functional exercises in addition to a traditional muscle-conditioning program, but not as a substitute.
If you're intrigued by functional fitness, consider meeting with a certified personal trainer who can assess your specific needs, abilities, and goals. You can also check for functional-exercise classes at your local gym. Previously sedentary adults who are just starting to exercise might first need traditional weight training to build up enough strength to do more advanced functional exercises, which often rely on body weight for resistance. And people who have certain health problems, such as heart failure or chronic back pain, should check with a doctor before diving in.
To give you a taste of the trend, we've highlighted five everyday movements and paired each with a functional strengthening exercise based on recommendations from Jessica Matthews, an exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise.
Real-world example: Propping yourself up to a sitting position after lying down
Exercise to try: Triangle push-ups
This twist on the traditional push-up targets not only the chest and shoulders but also your triceps and core muscles. Place your thumbs and forefingers together in a triangle directly under your chest. With your legs extended back and propped up on your toes, tighten your abdominal muscles and slowly bend your elbows; allow them to flare outward slightly as you lower your body to the floor. Avoid letting your lower back sag or hiking your hips up during the movement. Then rise back up, pressing through your arms until they're fully extended. (Be careful not to lock your elbows.) If a full push-up is too challenging, do it on your knees instead. Repeat for 30 seconds, working your way up to a minute.
Real-world example: Getting out of a chair or picking a package off the floor
Exercise to try: Bodyweight squats
How to do it: Stand tall and place your feet hip-width apart, with your arms by your sides. Contract your abdominal muscles, inhale, and slowly shift your weight back onto your heels as you push your hips back. Begin to bend your knees, lowering into a seated position. (Ideally, your thighs should become almost parallel to the floor.) Then, as you exhale, slowly straighten your legs and rise back up to the starting position. Do the exercise for a total of 30 seconds, working your way up to a minute.
Real-world example: Climbing stairs
Exercise to try: Step-ups
This exercise will not only help you conquer staircases, but it will also effectively work your hamstrings and glutes. Begin by facing a staircase. Slowly place your right foot on a step, then pause and push off your left foot until both feet are on the step. (Hold the banister for balance, if needed.) Then slowly lower yourself by stepping back with your right foot first. Allow your body to lean slightly forward during the step-down movement. Repeat with the opposite leg. Do each side for about 30 seconds.
Real-world example: Opening a heavy door
Exercise to try: Seated rowing
This move requires resistance tubing, available for less than $20 at sporting-goods stores. Sit on the floor with your legs extended and knees slightly bent. Place the resistance tubing around the arches of your feet and grasp the handles in each hand with palms toward you. Continue pulling until they reach your sides, just above your waist. Throughout the movement, keep your elbows close to your body. Then inhale and slowly straighten your elbows, returning to the starting position. Repeat for 30 seconds, working your way up to a minute.
Real-world example: Reaching across your body
Exercise to try: Kneeling wood chops with a medicine ball
Begin in a kneeling position with your left foot forward and right knee on the floor. Holding a medicine ball (available at sporting-goods stores for $20 and up depending on weight) or volleyball in both hands, abdominals tight and your chest, hips, and head facing forward. With the ball close to your body, slowly move it down and across your body to your right hip. Hold this position briefly before returning to the starting position. You'll also want to perform the move in the opposite direction, with your right leg forward. Do 30 seconds on each side.
This article appeared in the September 2013 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.