Remember the good ol’ days when you could get out of bed in the morning and not hear something crack? Join the club. As we get older, things tend to creak, pop, ache, and in the worst case, actually freaking hurt.
As Liz Grantham settled into middle age, she was enjoying the benefits of her hard work: lots of travel, a rich social life, and many opportunities to stay busy in her rare off time. She also, however, started to struggle with the challenges that come with working – and playing – hard.
“In my mind, I still felt like I was 30. But after years of sitting behind a desk and flying around the world for business, issues starting piling on each other: back pain, planter fasciitis, poor sleep,” Grantham recalls. A life-lover and problem-solver, she moved her health to the top of her priority list. “I was certain that if I looked hard enough and could find a way to fix the things that were holding me back, my next chapter could be the best chapter.”
Isn’t that what we all want as we age – to remain active, vibrant, curious, and pain-free? To get out of bed feeling ready to kick butt and take names? No matter what our level of activity, from daily exerciser to weekend warrior, we want to move through the years with flexibility, endurance, balance, and strength. For Grantham, functional fitness was the key.
The Mayo Clinic defines functional fitness as exercises that train muscles to work together and prepare them for daily tasks while using various muscles in the upper and lower body at the same time. Functional fitness has solid benefits as a stand-alone practice, and when combined with more rigorous on-trend routines like HIIT or boot camp, can help prevent injury and soreness. The American Council on Exercise found that movements such as jumping, bending, twisting, and even just walking can be made easier while training in functional fitness.
The immediate and impactful changes were so impressive to Grantham that she enlisted her trainer, Jannie Claassen, and physiotherapist Simone Levy to help create The Optimal.me, a subscription-based program for the public.
Explains Levy, “Functional training surpasses exercise that isolates muscle groups because it balances all the fitness components simultaneously. Strength training, muscle tone, and joint flexibility are integrated with functional movement patterns and flow. We need that balance at all times in our lives.”
In other words, traditional weight training, circuits, and sports focus on certain muscles at a time, and can lead to overuse injury, imbalance, and diminishing returns. Functional training works multiple muscles in all three planes of motion, encourages stability and good posture (core!), and creates long, lean, strong muscles. Sounds pretty good, right?
You’ve already likely tapped into that magic without even knowing it. The movements are incorporated into yoga, pilates, and aerobics. Movements with weights may be part of your weight training routine. Even some physical therapy is functional training. It is foundational.
Curious about what those movements are? Feeling good about implementing them into your “age gracefully” master plan?
Ten exercises for functional training:
Fans of yoga will recognize this lunge-and-twist move. In addition to relieving tight hips and engaging the core, the twist addresses the entire back. If you do a lot of sitting all day (as we do), hip openers will inspire some mobility.
Back, forward, side – all the lunges are important for hips. The side lunge has the added bonus of working the booty. Focusing on extending and even lifting the straight leg adds to the work.
This is another way to improve hip mobility and increase stability. Start on your back with both legs raised as straight as possible, and lower one at a time slowly to the floor.
Sit Bone Sit
For balance and core strength, the sit bone sit is a good choice. From sitting, bend and lift your legs to table top. While maintaining balance, sweep your arms out, and hold with your palms up and open.
To gain more upper body strength and to ease into floor push-ups, the wall version is quite effective. Place your palms flat on a wall and a straight body, lean forward, bending your elbows.
Arm Extension, Kneeling
In addition to being a great chest and shoulder opener (attention, desk sitters), this move challenges balance and core stability. While on your knees, lift your hips up, raise your chest, and extend your arms out to the side as wide as possible.
Roll Over, Rover
Again, a strong core comes into play when you’re doing what looks like a simple action like rolling over. From laying on your stomach on the floor, flip to your back without using your arms or legs and being as stable as possible.
This is a version of the squat you can do at work, on a plane, or even while watching TV. Make the movement to sit, but before touching the chair with your butt, stand back up. This strengthens and tones quads, glutes, and calves.
From squat position, twist right so your hands are outside your right leg. Then lift your arms diagonally upward so you’re twisted to the left. Switch sides. Rotation is important for shoveling, golf, swimming, and even putting dishes away.
On your hands and knees in table top position, raise and extend your right arm and left leg at the same time. Extend a little further. Switch sides. Superman is a full body move with benefits for lower back, neck, and spine especially.
These might sound easy, but underestimate the tush-kicking you get from small movements done slowly and correctly. You will get a good burn and a glowy sweat. The important thing to remember is that functional training is a training on its own, and therefore requires the mindfulness of its intention. It is advised, of course, to consult with a physician before starting any exercise program, and to get expert direction on these movements for maximum benefit and minimum injury. Grantham reminds, “Always listen to your body. It carries the wisdom needed to ensure you don’t hurt yourself.”
As Grantham found, being functionally fit comes with a mental and emotional component as well. Being safe and strong as opposed to fearing injury is naturally a benefit. Moving with flow and control, rather than momentum and power, brings a sense of grace and calm. And trust: our bodies feeling a little stronger and more open isn’t a bad thing!
by Deborah Rosseau