By Brian B. Parr, Ph.D.
Regular exercise is among the most important things you can do to promote and maintain good health. Health benefits aside, many people exercise to lose or maintain weight, improve their fitness level, or enhance their physique. But exercise has practical benefits beyond burning calories increasing strength, endurance, and flexibility. It turns out that fitness can be functional, too. You may not have heard much about it yet, but functional fitness has been identified as a top fitness trend.
What is functional fitness?
Functional fitness is defined as using strength training to improve balance, coordination, force, power, and endurance to enhance the ability to perform activities of daily living. Practically speaking, functional fitness training aims to replicate the movements associated with the wide range of physical activities someone might do in his or her daily routine. For example, athletes have long used functional fitness training to target the movements they utilize in their sport. Beyond running and lifting weights to increase strength and endurance, today’s athletes train to build stability, agility, and flexibility to better apply their force and power for optimal performance. This concept of “sport specific” training has applications outside of athletics. If you think about it, many occupations have similar fitness requirements to some sports. Firefighters come to mind, lifting and carrying heavy equipment, climbing stairs and ladders, and moving through tight spaces, often for extended periods of time without rest. But the same could be said for construction workers, landscapers, and other occupations that require manual labor. To be sure, the components of functional fitness are as important for workers as they are for athletes. Often- times, fitness deficits in workers are addressed in occupational therapy, after an injury occurs; the aim of functional fitness is to build the strength and endurance to prevent, rather than treat, injuries.
Functional fitness is important to you even if you don’t participate in sports or have a physically active job. Training to improve strength, balance, coordination, and endurance is essential for enhancing your ability to complete activities of daily living. Fitness plays a role in nearly all activities, from simple things like maintaining posture, sitting, and standing, to more complex movements including lifting a box at home, carrying several bags of groceries, or playing with your children (or grandchildren). Even something as routine as bending down to tie your shoes requires strength, flexibility, and balance. These are the very activities that become more difficult as we age, so improving functional fitness can help maintain independence and quality of life.
How to improve functional fitness
Good functional fitness programs address all components of fitness, including aerobic, muscular strength and endurance, and flexibility that you would expect from traditional exercise. Additionally, functional training emphasizes core strength, agility, balance, coordination, and applying muscle force effectively, called muscular power. The equipment used in functional fitness training may look a lot like what you see in a typical gym. Many exercises use your body weight as resistance, so you may also see bars and rings for pull-ups, boxes to step or jump up on, ropes to climb, and lots of floor space for basic exercises like push-ups and sit-ups.
Weight training is typically done using free weights instead of machines, primarily because using free weights also teaches proper body position and balance, something you don’t always get from weight machines. For example, doing a squat is a very practical exercise, relevant to a wide range of activities of daily living including sitting, standing, and picking objects up off the floor. Training to do squats using your body weight, either with added weight or without, is directly applicable to what you would really do. You could use a leg press machine, in which you are seated and push the weight upward or forward, to work the same major muscle groups, but that movement rarely occurs in real life – it simply isn’t functional.
The squat is just one example of functional exercises that translate to many real-life activities. The deadlift, in which you bend forward to lift a weight off the floor, and the bicep curl both help build strength for lifting and carrying everything from bags of groceries to heavy equipment on the job. The shoulder press involves lifting a weight up over your head, like putting a box on a high shelf (or a bag in the overhead bin on an airplane). The plank involves holding your torso off the floor in a push-up position and is excellent for improving core strength, which is essential for balance and stability. Lunges, in which you step forward with one foot and lower your other knee to the floor, also are important for enhancing balance.
Since functional fitness training often targets athletes, it can involve intense exercise. It is important to note that almost every exercise used in functional fitness programs is scalable, meaning the intensity can be altered so it is appropriate for people of all abilities. In this way, the same exercise used by a young, fit firefighter can also be used by that firefighter’s grandmother with the same benefits. Also keep in mind almost every type of physical activity will have some benefits for improving functional fitness. Doing some of the simple movements listed above using your body weight for resistance can be a safe and effective way to add functional training to your routine. If you are interested in more focused training, the popularity of functional fitness means that you should be able to find a gym or program (CrossFit is one example) without too much trouble. Considering that nearly everything you do involves movements enhanced by functional fitness training, it will be time well spent! The effort spent now to enhance your functional fitness level could pay huge dividends toward a more active, vibrant life, as you grow older.