Physical fitness is an important part of a healthy lifestyle, especially as we age. Regular exercise can tone muscles, increase circulation, and even slow the effects of aging. Yet it can be challenging for older adults to find exercises that feel appropriate. That's why functional fitness is so exciting.
Functional fitness isn't about heavy lifting, it's about improving quality of life while encouraging physical activity. And it's a great way to have some fun.
What is Functional Fitness?
Functional fitness is designed to improve core strength, balance, and cardiovascular health, as well as promote relaxation. Targeted exercises are designed to deliver the maximum benefit for each participant.
The goal is to increase overall health and well-being, reduce the potential for falls, and encourage older adults to remain active. Where possible, functional fitness can even reduce the need for assisted mobility devices. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, frequent exercise can help relieve arthritis pain and lower the risk of type 2 diabetes.
How to Get Started
Before starting any exercise program, follow these recommendations provided by The American Senior Fitness Association:
- First, always check with your doctor before starting an exercise program.
- Reduce or suspend exercise if you’re injured, sick, or have a fever.
- Always warm up before and cool down after exercise.
- Drink plenty of water before, during, and after exercise.
- Avoid heavy meals before exercise.
- If you feel significant fatigue or discomfort after working out, cut back a little the next time you exercise. What works one day may be different the next, so don’t be surprised if you’re not doing the same level of exercise every day. If, however, your fatigue or discomfort is extreme, it is best to see your doctor as a precaution.
Look for a program that customizes activities based on your specific needs such as your fitness level, overall health, and fitness goals. It should especially take into consideration any physical restrictions you may have, whether they are short- or long-term.
Functional Fitness ExercisesThe National Institutes of Health recommend functional fitness exercises that support four fitness goals for seniors: endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility. Many exercises and activities can address all four goals combined. Plus, most exercises work together to reinforce each other’s benefits. Many functional fitness exercises can be incorporated into your daily activities. Here are four of the most effective.
Climbing StairsClimbing stairs are great for strengthening your legs, maintaining flexibility in the hip and knee joints, and even building or maintaining cardiac endurance. For most of us, stairs are pretty available and convenient to use. But if that’s not the case for you, skip the elevator the next time you visit the doctor, a friend, or the mall, and take the stairs instead.
Sit to StandAlso called a chair squat, this exercise is simple and easy to do. You can do it every time you sit down, whether to eat, play cards, watch TV, or engage in any other seated activity. Begin by standing in front of your chair, and then sit as you normally would. However, before you actually touch the chair or transfer weight to it, stand up again. Repeat several times.
Wall Push-UpsThis exercise improves upper body strength, especially in your arms and chest. Stand slightly less than arm’s length from the wall, close enough to place your palms flat on the wall. Keeping your body straight, bend your elbows and lean forward toward the wall. Then press away from the wall to your starting position. The closer you are to the wall, the easier the exercise will be. Start closer and work yourself farther away as you’re able.
Other Exercises to do at Home
Dee, national director of physical and occupational therapy for The Goodman Group, knows that working a fitness routine into daily living can be a challenge. She recommends trying any of the stay-at-home exercise programs that are now available. She says many TV stations — PBS, for example — broadcast exercise programs geared toward seniors. There is a vast selection of DVDs you can check out from your local library or buy from the store, too.
You can also “get smart” about it. Apps like Daily Senior Fitness Exercise and Yoga Exercises for Seniors can guide you through simple movements to maintain flexibility and strength.
Take a Class at a Community Center
If you prefer getting out of the house, community centers are great resources for affordable fitness classes that cater to all ages. Many centers offer classes designed specifically for seniors and some even have swimming pools, which can be a great way to exercise, too.
"I love swimming because it is so good for your joints," Dee says. "You get really good cardiovascular exercise without your weight bearing on your bones." But swimming doesn't help with bone density, she says. You'll want to complete some weight-bearing exercises, like a stationary bike or light-weight resistance training.
Use Variety and Motivation to Keep You Going
A key to maintaining good health year-round is to practice a variety of exercises. Try an aerobics DVD Monday, a yoga class Wednesday, and a walk around the neighborhood with a friend on Saturday.
Maintaining motivation is also key. If you're concerned about staying committed to your workout regimen, find a fitness friend. "Friends that go exercise with you are very valuable," Dee says. It's more difficult to skip your workout if it means skipping your commitment with a friend. Plus, the added encouragement is always nice
Physical Benefits of Functional Fitness
Functional fitness targets four key areas that help keep us healthy and active as we age:
- Strength — Building and maintaining muscle strength and function
- Flexibility — Keeping joints and muscles supple and moving with ease
- Endurance — Sustaining movement that improves cardiovascular health
- Balance — Staying secure and strong on our feet, a key to preventing falls
Functional fitness can even benefit your ability to do activities of daily living (ADLs) such as bathing, dressing, preparing meals, getting out of bed, shopping, and driving. As you build strength, daily tasks such as these become easier to complete independently.
Emotional Benefits of Functional Fitness
Physical fitness is important for good health at any age, but what about the emotional benefits of physical fitness? The National Institute on Aging says there are also many emotional benefits to staying functionally fit. Here are four that stand out.
- Social Engagement. While you don’t have to work out with an exercise buddy or in a group class, most physical activities will involve some social interaction — even if it’s just saying “hello” as you pass someone on the same walking path. Social interactions, even if brief, may boost the immune system and your mood — contributing to an overall sense of well-being and happiness.
- Mental Acuity. Exercising can help your mental health, too. Regular exercise helps you maintain focus and readily switch between tasks like answering a call from the doctor’s office right in the middle of planning your day. Staying mentally sharp is even more important as we age and is a contributing factor to one’s overall level of engagement.
- Self-Confidence. Staying physically and mentally fit can increase your self-confidence. Knowing that you’re able to manage day-to-day activities like driving, shopping, or cooking is an important factor in maintaining a positive attitude. That, in turn, tends to increase your overall level of happiness and sense of purpose in life.
- Independence. When you're fit and confident, you can rely on your own independence. Feelings of strength and independence are major factors in maintaining a high quality of life for seniors. They ensure that you have control over your own life situation, even as changes may arise. It also increases self-esteem and self-confidence, creating a positive cycle of reinforcement.
We continue to hear from our residents how much fun they have with each other in our FIT Functional Fitness, which is why they come to classes time and again.
We have residents who shared that after participating in functional fitness classes, they’re able to do things they couldn’t before like go on outings, climb stairs, get into vehicles, and enjoy a walk around the lake. Most importantly, they’re able to enjoy moments with their loved ones that they couldn’t in the past.