According to the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition, more than 80% of all adults don’t meet the government’s recommended guidelines for exercise—and less than 5% of those who do exercise participate in 30 minutes of physical activity per day. (26) Over time, a sedentary lifestyle can take a toll on your overall health as well as your ability to perform everyday activities like carrying groceries, opening jars, or even getting up from a chair.

The problem is so prevalent that 40% of adults over the age of 65 have problems with mobility. (21) Thankfully, studies show that adding functional fitness to your daily routine can improve your strength, stamina, balance, and range of motion to keep you movin’ and groovin’ well into your 80s and beyond. (2)(18)

Did you know? One in every four seniors experience a potentially life-altering fall each year, largely due to a lack of functional fitness. (7)

 

Woman loading groceries into her car
Enhancing your functional fitness can help you maintain the ability to accomplish everyday tasks at every age.

 

What is functional fitness?

Functional fitness has become one of the trendiest buzzwords in gyms and CrossFit “boxes” everywhere. In reality, however, functional fitness isn’t a fad. And it’s not reserved for fitness buffs. Functional fitness is actually a way of exercising that can benefit everyone, especially people in their later years.

At its core, functional fitness is a type of strength training that preps your body for real-life, daily activities like bending, twisting, lifting, loading, pushing, pulling, squatting, and hauling. Most functional fitness workouts contain multi-joint movement exercises that involve your knees, hips, spine, elbows, wrists, and shoulders. Not only do these movements build strength, they also improve your range of motion. And the best part? They can be adapted to any age or fitness level. (8)

Did you know? Unlike traditional strength training, functional fitness exercises focus on compound movements, not just a single muscle group.

The key benefits of functional training

Functional fitness exercises train your muscles so you can safely and effectively perform everyday tasks like carrying groceries or bending over to pick up something from the floor. They work multiple joints and muscles which can, over time, reduce your risk of injury and improve your quality of life.(17)(23) Regularly incorporating functional fitness training into your routine can confer many benefits, including:

  • Building greater grip strength (4)
  • Developing better balance (4)(30)
  • Easing chronic back pain (6)
  • Enhancing joint health (15)(16)
  • Improving posture (14)
  • Increasing muscle strength (14)
  • Preventing injury (3)

Tips for customizing your functional fitness workouts

When it comes to functional fitness, there’s no one-size-fits-all workout routine that’s right for everyone. There are some pre-workout precautions you can take to help ensure that your training is successful. First and foremost, check with your healthcare practitioner to make sure it’s safe to exercise, especially if you are sedentary or have a pre-existing condition. Once you have the green light, the National Institute on Aging recommends the following:

  • Dress appropriately (e.g., leggings or shorts, t-shirt, tennis shoes)
  • Drink water before, during, and after your workout
  • Warm up by jogging in place
  • Start slowly with low-intensity exercises
  • Choose an appropriate weight if using dumbbells or kettlebells to prevent injury
  • Pay attention to your surroundings if exercising outdoors
  • Take time to cool down once your workout is over (12)

Starting gradually and progressively increasing the weight and difficulty of functional fitness exercises has been shown to safely improve muscle strength. Functional fitness has also been found to benefit people of every age—even in those who’ve celebrated their 80th birthday and beyond. (19)

Best functional fitness exercises

The exercises below don’t require a gym and some can be accomplished with nothing but your own body weight. What’s more, they can be modified for your current fitness level.

 

Woman exercising
Box squats work the same muscles you use to sit down and stand up.

 

Squat

Squats are one of the best exercises to build lower body strength because they involve compound movements that engage multiple joints and muscle groups. (9)(20)

  1. Stand straight with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Bend your knees, slowly lowering your body toward the floor while pushing back into your hips. Do not extend your knees past your toes. Simultaneously, extend both arms straight out in front of you.
  3. Pause, then slowly rise up, pushing through your heels, to the starting position.
  4. Complete two to three sets of 12 to 15 reps.
  5. Make it harder by holding a dumbbell in each hand as you perform your squats.

Looking for something a little more zen? Yoga has also been shown to enhance balance, flexibility, and mobility, particularly in older adults. (10)(29)

Box squat

This exercise works your glutes and hamstrings—the same muscles you use when you sit on and rise from a chair. (28) Traditionally an exercise box is used; however, any solid surface such as a bench or a chair also works. Just be sure that the surface is flat and that it’s high enough so that, when you are in the sitting position, your upper legs are at a 90 degree angle.

  1. Stand facing away from the box or chair with your feet shoulder-width apart. Make sure the back of your legs are slightly in front of the edge of the box.
  2. Keeping your abdominal muscles engaged and your chest tall, take a deep breath, hinge at the hips, and bend your knees to lower until you are sitting down on the box.
  3. Immediately push your feet into the ground, squeeze your glutes, and drive your hips forward to press back to standing, exhaling on the way up. That’s one repetition.
  4. Strive to complete 12 to 15 reps.
  5. For a greater challenge, hold a dumbbell in each hand as you lower and rise.

 

Man lifting dumbbells at a gym
Also called the farmer’s walk, the farmer’s carry helps strengthen multiple muscles used in everyday activities.

 

Farmer’s carry

This whole body exercise is very simple, yet it works your shoulders, biceps, triceps, forearms, upper back, quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, calves, and core. During a farmer’s carry, you carry a weight in each hand while walking a designated distance. (11) While dumbbells or kettlebells are the standard go-to, you can also use cans, milk jugs filled with water or sand, or even heavy suitcases. Start with lighter weight and gradually increase the weight as you become stronger.

  1. Place the weights on the floor on either side of your body.
  2. Bending at the hips and knees and keeping your back flat, reach down to grasp a weight in each hand. Rise up to a standing position.
  3. Stand tall, keeping your shoulders back and your abdominal muscles engaged, walk forward at an even pace until you reach the designated distance.
    Squat down and put the weights down on the floor. Rest for one to three minutes. Repeat three to five times.

 

Woman doing a lunge
When performing lunges, make sure you keep your back straight and your abdominal muscles engaged.

 

Lunge

Lunges work your glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves. (22) They also strengthen your knees, which makes it an essential exercise for maintaining range of motion and healthy knee joints. (27) However, if you suffer from osteoarthritis of the knees, you may want to skip this move as it can exacerbate pain. (25)

  1. Stand with your hands on your hips. If balance is an issue, place one hand on a chair.
  2. Step your right leg out so your feet are in a split stance.
  3. Without moving your feet, lunge forward while lowering your body. Stop when your front leg forms a 90 degree angle with the ground.
  4. Return to your starting position and switch legs. Complete 12 to 15 reps with each leg.
  5. To increase the difficulty level, hold a weight in each hand.

 

Two people planking on a dock
Planks are an excellent exercise to strengthen the girdle of muscles that support your core.

 

Plank

Planks are a great way to improve your balance and strengthen your shoulder and abdominal muscles. (5)(24) This can be helpful when you need to get up off the floor. As a bonus, strengthening your core can also help prevent back pain. (1)

  1. Start on all fours on the floor with your arms bent to support your upper body.
  2. Walk your feet out behind you until your legs are straight. Hold the position for as long as you can, making sure your hips don’t drop toward the floor or rise toward the ceiling.
  3. To make it harder, challenge your balance by lifting and extending your right arm and your left leg simultaneously. Hold and then switch to your left arm and right leg.

If this exercise is new to you, consider starting off with a variation on your elbows or knees.

 

Woman doing yoga
Push ups can be modified to accommodate shoulder injuries or other physical limitations.

 

Push up

Push ups work your arms, shoulders, chest, lats, upper back, and abdominal muscles. (13) Although pushups may seem challenging, this compound exercise can be modified to your abilities.

  1. Start in a plank position with your arms straight and your hands under your shoulders. Engage your abdominal muscles and inhale. Bend your elbows to slowly lower your upper body toward the floor.
  2. Exhale as you begin to push your hands into the ground, extending your elbows until you’ve returned to the starting position. Don’t lock your elbows; keep them slightly bent.
  3. To make it easier, place your knees on the floor for greater stability. To make it harder, put your feet on a step or a stability ball before lowering yourself into the pushup.
  4. Complete two to three sets of ten to 15 reps.

 

Man doing a squat
Squats help build strong leg and buttocks muscles while also improving balance.

 

The bottom line

Adding functional fitness training to your daily routine can help you perform everyday activities no matter your age. Improving strength, balance, and range of motion with functional fitness workouts can also help those in their later years remain active and less prone to injury. And, as numerous studies show, it’s never too late to start!

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