Functional fitness is the ability to carry out the tasks of daily living safely and easily
We are talking about tasks like carrying groceries, picking up things off the floor, opening a jar, reaching for something on a high shelf, backing out of an angle parking spot or lifting your grandchild out of a car seat. The key is the ability to function independently, not to avoid tasks that have become awkward or difficult, and to maintain the ability to do the activities that are enjoyable.
Why is it important? Well, part of the answer is obvious. We all want to get through the day safely and easily. As you start to lose this ability, you start to lose your ability to live fully and independently.
While a person may not be aware of it happening, losing functional fitness often has started to happen in one’s early forties.
It seldom happens overnight, rather happens over time as a result of a reduction in physical activity. Muscle strength, balance and co-ordination decline. This can lead to a vicious cycle. Some activities become more difficult or raise the likelihood of injuries like falling or hurting yourself. This can lead to avoiding the activities or using an aid with the net result of less activity and ability.
The evidence is clear. The primary reason older adults move into assisted living facilities is the loss of functional fitness.
There is even a darker side to losing functional fitness. Declines in the ability to get out of a chair, walking gait or grip strength are often associated with a shorter lifespan. How can this be? Well, these declines go beyond the activity itself and indicate more systematic and pervasive deterioration in the body and brain.
What is Functional Fitness Training?
The simple answer is that it is training programs that help your body to handle real-life situation.
In real life situation, whether they are daily tasks or recreational activities, individual muscles like the biceps don’t work alone. Yet, that is how most people exercise them. Purposeful movements involve coordinating multiple muscle groups, a stable base and good biomechanics. You are not functionally fit if lifting your grandchild out of a car seat is awkward or throws your back out.
Conventional weight training and functional fitness are very different. The goals are different and so are the ways you train.
The goal of weight training is to produce strong and well-defined muscles, and usually the exercises focus on individual muscle groups. In fact, most of the machines in a weight training room are designed to do just that.
Exercises that promote functional fitness are designed to make carrying out everyday tasks easy and safe. While strength is not unimportant, it is not the goal. The goal is to have enough strength, along with the co-ordination, flexibility and balance to do the daily task or recreational activities with ease.
Here is a big distinction. In weight training you “train to fail,” that is, you want to fatigue the muscle so it adapts and gets stronger. In functional fitness, initially, you do the exercise in a simpler or less complex form until you can do it easily and with good functional form. Then you move on to more natural and complete movement patterns, always with the goal of gaining the ability to do the movement with ease and safety.
The good news is that most people improve rapidly and report remarkable changes in doing their everyday tasks, and either makes recreational activities possible or enjoyable.
In our next post on functional fitness, we will provide some concrete examples of functional fitness exercises. What is important functional fitness becomes part of your daily routine as before you start losing it. Yes, we are talking about prevention and maintenance.