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Functional Fitness: The Key to Keeping Your Independence at Any Age

Think about all the little things you need to do on a daily basis… there’s always laundry to wash, dishes to clean, and don’t forget about the eternal grocery list that hangs on your fridge!

You may not give these routine activities much thought, but imagine if you couldn’t do them anymore. It would make living on your own pretty challenging right? This is where functional fitness comes in.

The idea behind functional fitness exercise is that it makes these Activities of Daily Living (ADLs) safe and easy to perform. For example, a lunge is a functional fitness exercise because it works the muscles you use to sit down in a chair or climb the stairs.

And being able to safely perform ADLs is critical for taking care of yourself as you get older. What’s more, these activities help you burn calories, keep active, and maintain strength and agility.

So, at its core, functional fitness focuses on maintaining or improving quality of life.

Which is why I’ve put together a list of simple functional fitness exercises, with videos, to help you stay fit and agile at any age! These exercises are low-impact and weight-bearing. So, they are great for older adults with osteoporosis.

The Squat

The squat is one of the best functional exercises because it works your entire body. The motion involves your hips, knees, and lower back. So, squatting strengthens your core, upper body, and even increases joint flexibility!

Squatting is a functional exercise because it trains the muscles you use whenever you sit down or get back up. There are many variations of this exercise, but here, we’ll go over how to perform a full body squat.

Here’s how to do the exercise:

  1. Stand with your back nice and straight, your shoulders tall, and your feet firmly planted about hip-width apart.
  2. Keeping your back straight, slowly bend your knees while raising your arms forward.
  3. At the bottom of your squat, your knees shouldn’t go past your feet, and your arms should be parallel to your shoulders.
  4. Make sure you keep your back straight as you come back up while lowering your arms back to your sides.
  5. Repeat this squat and stand motion eight times (or however many repetitions you feel comfortable with!).

For additional weight-bearing benefits, use a dumbbell or extra weight as you see fit.

Tailor the exercise to you:

If this is your first time trying squats, don’t overdo it! Only bend your knees as far as you’re comfortable with. Focus on keeping your back straight and perfecting the technique before adding weights.

Remember to take your time and avoid speeding through the motion. You’ll benefit more from this exercise if you maintain proper posture (even if you do fewer repetitions!). If you can, try exercising in front of a mirror, so you can keep an eye on your form.

Step Ups

Step ups are an excellent functional exercise as they work many of your lower-body muscles. Your quadriceps (the muscles that make up the front of your thighs) and your knee and hip joints benefit the most from this one. But you’ll also feel it in your glutes, calves, and hamstrings!

This movement is a functional exercise because it engages the muscles you use when you climb the stairs or water your garden. You can also make this exercise easier or harder with some small adjustments we’ll go over in a second!

Here’s how to do the exercise:

  1. Stand in front of a bench, aerobic step, or stool with your feet hip-width apart. Place your left foot securely on this raised surface.
  2. Start with your left arm at your side and your right arm bent forwards.
  3. Push through your left foot to lift your right foot off the floor. Bring your right leg all the way up until your knee is parallel to the ground.
  4. Bring your right arm down and your left arm forward at the top of your step up and then back to starting position as you come down.
  5. Repeat this step up movement eight times or however many times you feel comfortable with.
  6. Switch legs and repeat!

Tailor the exercise to you:

Step ups are very versatile, so don’t worry if you can’t perform a full step up right away. To make this exercise easier, use a lower step. Note that if you place your foot on the step and your thigh slopes down towards you, the step is too high! Your thigh should be level to the ground or slope forwards for an easier variation.

Also, instead of raising your right foot all the way up, you can rest it on the step next to your other foot when you come to the top of your movement. This way you won’t have to balance on one leg.

When you feel more comfortable, you can try lifting your leg a little further. If you’re ready to kick things up a notch, you can incorporate small weights to increase resistance. Just remember to start slow and do what feels right for you!

Forward Press with Medicine Ball

This exercise is nice and easy, yet so valuable. A forward press while holding a medicine ball works your shoulders, your arms, and your hands. It can help improve your grip along with your overall arm and shoulder strength.

The forward press resembles many movements you do in day-to-day life. Closing your car door, pushing yourself up from your bed, and opening and closing the fridge door are all applicable ADLs. Here’s how to do a forward press and make these daily activities easier!

Here’s how to do the exercise:

  1. Start with your feet firmly planted on the ground, hip-width apart. Hold a medicine ball between your hands at chest height.
  2. Slowly extend your arms forward until they’re straight.
  3. Hold this position for a moment and then bend your arms back toward your body until the medicine ball is directly in front of your chest again.
  4. Repeat this back and forwards movement eight times, or as you see fit!

Tailor the exercise to you:

If holding a medicine ball is too challenging, don’t worry! You can easily perform this exercise without one. But, I recommend holding something, even if it’s a balled up dish towel, to practice your grip. As you become more comfortable, you can switch in heavier objects.

One-Arm Woodchops (Diagonal Shoulder Press)

The one-arm woodchop, or diagonal shoulder press, is great for strengthening your shoulder and arm muscles. It’s especially beneficial for your rotator cuff—the group of muscles and tendons that stabilize your shoulder.

This exercise mimics reaching for objects in your pantry or grabbing something from your bathroom cabinet. There are many variations of the one-arm woodchop, including a full woodchop which uses both arms. Here’s how to do the easier, one-arm version.

Here’s how to do the exercise:

  1. Stand with your feet firmly planted on the ground, hip-width apart. Hold a dumbbell in your hand resting just above your opposite thigh.
  2. Slowly raise your arm, moving diagonally across your body until your arm extends a little higher than shoulder height in front of you.  
  3. Try to keep your arm as straight as possible when performing this movement, but note that a little bend is natural! Lower your arm back down across your body until the dumbbell is resting just above your thigh again.
  4. Perform this movement eight times or as many times as you can comfortably manage.
  5. Switch arms and repeat!

Tailor the exercise to you:

If dumbbells are too much to start, you can easily perform this exercise without! Once again, I recommend holding something in your hand to strengthen your grip. Once you’ve worked your way to heavier objects, you can try performing this exercise with a dumbbell.

If you’re more advanced, you can progress from a one-arm woodchop to a full woodchop! A full woodchop is performed with a medicine ball and both arms. This version of the exercise works your right and left sides at the same time.

Lunge

Lunges are an exceptional functional exercise as they work multiple muscles at the same time. They target your quads and glutes primarily, but they also work your hamstrings, calves, and core too!

Another benefit of lunges is that they help your balance and coordination. This is because a lunge is a “unilateral exercise” meaning that it trains one side of your body, independent of the other. Lunges also increase the flexibility in your hip flexor muscles which are commonly tight from spending too much time sitting down.

You might perform a movement similar to a lunge when you reach down to pick something up off the ground or when you climb the stairs. There are lots of variations on the lunge as well, but here’s how to do a classic one!

Here’s how to do the exercise:

  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your hands by your sides.
  2. Take a big step forward with one foot. Make sure you step far enough so that when you bend, the middle of your front knee will be directly above your ankle.
  3. Your other leg should be behind you with your foot facing forward. When you bend, allow your back heel to come up off the floor as much as needed.  
  4. Keep your back straight and lower your hips until your knees are bent about 90 degrees.  
  5. While lowering yourself, bend the arm opposite to your front leg forward.
  6. Spend a moment at the bottom of your lunge before coming back up slowly and bringing your arm to your side.
  7. Switch your front leg for every lunge and repeat eight times, or however many times you feel comfortable with!

Tailor the exercise to you:

This functional exercise can be adjusted for any fitness level. More advanced forms include lateral lunges and reverse lunges, but I recommend mastering the classic lunge first. Maintaining proper form is extremely important when doing this exercise.

You’ll be tempted to hunch forwards, but resist this impulse. Go slowly and keep your back straight. Don’t force yourself to go all the way down either. Start small and work your way towards a full lunge!

Functional Fitness Takeaways

Being able to go about ADLs with ease is crucial to living on your own. Yet, as you get older, you begin to lose muscle strength which can make these day-to-day tasks challenging, and ultimately, lead to disability.

This is why functional fitness training is so important! In a systematic review, researchers found that functional exercise benefited muscle strength, balance, mobility, and ADLs. They concluded that functional fitness training may improve day-to-day performance in older adults.

In plain English, this means that functional exercise makes everyday activities like getting dressed, cooking, and playing with your grandchildren easier and safer. For someone with osteoporosis, taking the risk out of these activities can help you avoid falls and fractures. Not to mention, these exercises are weight bearing too!

So, I hope you try some of these exercises, and that you find your day-to-day more enjoyable as a result! And remember, even if you can’t perform a movement right away, that’s perfectly okay. Stick with it, and you’ll get there.

As I always like to say, “It’s not where you are now, but where you want to go that matters.”

If you have questions about these exercises, or any functional fitness tips you’d like to share, please let me know in the comments below!

Author: Monica Straith, BS

Monica is the PR and Outreach Manager and Fitness Lead at AlgaeCal. She’s an ACE Certified Personal Trainer and Nutrition Specialist, and has a B.S. and B.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she played varsity soccer for four years. Monica pulls from her experience in athletics and health to contribute to AlgaeCal and has also been featured on myfitnesspal blog, Prevention, and Huffington Post.

Comments

  1. Victor Campana
    Victor Campana

    I found these exercise suggestions, will be extremely helpful for me. Thank you so much.
    Vic

    1. Jenna AlgaeCal
      Jenna AlgaeCal

      Glad to hear the exercises will be helpful for you, Victor!

      – Jenna @ AlgaeCal

  2. Francine Lovell
    Francine Lovell

    What do you mean by ADLs?
    English please:

    1. Jenna AlgaeCal
      Jenna AlgaeCal

      Hi Francine,

      ADLs stands for Activities of Daily Living! We introduce ADLs near the beginning of this blog post. 🙂

      – Jenna @ AlgaeCal

  3. Marie Groff
    Marie Groff

    I really appreciate these exercises and the clear instructions! Thank you!

  4. Mary Kane
    Mary Kane

    I like these. The last one is the hardest one.

  5. Pauline Miller
    Pauline Miller

    Do you have any excercises for someone who can not bend her right knee to 90degrees due to a knee cap being inserted slightly too high during a knee replacement. I can walk 6 miles with a coffee break in the middle or walk 13 holes playing golf but would like some excercises to do every day to
    help with strengthening my muscles.

    1. Jenna AlgaeCal
      Jenna AlgaeCal

      Hi Pauline,

      You can see a range of daily exercises on the exercise section of our blog here. It sounds like it might be a good idea to speak with a physiotherapist first to determine the safest and most effective moves for you!

      – Jenna @ AlgaeCal

  6. Cath
    Cath

    Thanks for these tips. So important to keep fit. Keep them coming.

    1. Jenna AlgaeCal
      Jenna AlgaeCal

      So important! We’ll definitely be sharing more posts like this.

      – Jenna @ AlgaeCal

  7. Kate
    Kate

    Would love to see suggestions for modifications on these for people with bad knees .

    1. Jenna AlgaeCal
      Jenna AlgaeCal

      Thanks for the feedback, Kate!

      Underneath each video we share modifications to tailor the exercise to you. 🙂

      – Jenna @ AlgaeCal

  8. Carol Bulzone
    Carol Bulzone

    Bone scan results today are 0.6 !
    I’m scared. Received my 6 mo. supply of AlgaeCal. Haven’t started yet. 2 years ago, score was 1.4 then .9 now .6. Is there hope for me? Or spine surgery? Lost 4″ in height. Thank you.

    1. Jenna AlgaeCal
      Jenna AlgaeCal

      So glad you reached out, Carol. There’s absolutely hope — AlgaeCal is clinically supported to increase bone mineral density no matter the severity of bone loss.

      It’s difficult to understand your DEXA scan results without further information — if you would like to discuss your results with one of our Bone Health Consultants please call 1-800-820-0184! They’ll be interested in your T-score’s, and possibly your BMD scores too.

      – Jenna @ AlgaeCal

  9. Maureen
    Maureen

    A gym membership is paid for by Medicare. I have found a group class that has these exercises that I try to go to twice a week. It’s called thrive barre. What I really like about this class is the availability of the (ballet) bar to use to help with balance while I am gradually working my way to being able to do these kinds of exercises. I highly recommend this type of class if someone prefers peer support rather then in isolation.

    1. Jenna AlgaeCal
      Jenna AlgaeCal

      Great suggestion, Maureen! We also have a four-part Barre for Bone Health Video Series you can see here. It’s perfect if you need to do the occasional at-home workout! 🙂

      – Jenna @ AlgaeCal

    2. Joyce
      Joyce

      Please tell me how Medicare will pay for a gym met? A doctors scrip usually give you therapy but I haven’t heard of a gym membership!

      1. Debra Quick
        Debra Quick

        Medicare offers free membership to gyms that carry : Silver Sneakers or Silver and Fit. Ask at the front desk at most gyms they will know.
        Good Luck

    3. Rayna Zwerlein
      Rayna Zwerlein

      Not true that gym membership is paid by Medicare for all. Silver sneakers in New York covers gym membership if you are Elio gible and I believe it’s in your secondary insurance when you are a senior.
      Rayna.

    4. Mila
      Mila

      Please say how to get Medicare to cover a gym membership – I live in NYC and it’s expensive

  10. Lisa Bivona
    Lisa Bivona

    I have a torn meniscus and need exercises so I don’t make it worse. I’ve had 1 shot about 1 1/2 years ago, and it hasn’t caused pain since the shot. I need to exercise. Gently?

    1. Megan AlgaeCal
      Megan AlgaeCal

      Hi Lisa,

      Thanks for sharing a bit about yourself. Yes, starting with gentle exercises is a good idea. We would recommend first consulting with an exercise specialist / physiotherapist about which exercises are best for you at this time. You may browse through some of the other exercises on our blog as we provide modifications for those who want to start off gently ❤️

      -Megan @ AlgaeCal

  11. Evelyn R. Wohlgamuth
    Evelyn R. Wohlgamuth

    I love these exercises I already do a couple of them. I am 69 years old and have had Osteoporosis for 10 years now. I have been taking True Osteo from Nature City for a couple of years witch also contains Alaecal and has improved my bone density from -3 to 3.9 in nine years time I would love to try your product but am retired and can’t afford it. I have lost weight and really can’t afford to lose anymore being that my muscles are wearing down to almost nothing I also started an organic protein drink daily and hoping to get some muscle back hope I’m doing the right thing, any suggestions would be appreciated. Thank you

    1. Megan AlgaeCal
      Megan AlgaeCal

      Hi Evelyn, thanks so much for sharing!

      Sounds like you’re doing a great job so far – keep it up! 😊 We have an article on protein that you might find helpful " rel="nofollow ugc">here. Calculating your protein needs and eating high quality protein can definitely help with maintaining muscle mass.

      Feel free to have a read and leave us a comment/question on the article above! 💕

      -Megan @ AlgaeCal

  12. Cathy Doma
    Cathy Doma

    Thank you for your suggestions. We are so lucky to have this wonderful website. 🙂

    1. Megan AlgaeCal
      Megan AlgaeCal

      Thank you for your kind words, Cathy 😊

      Let us know how you get on with the exercises!

      -Megan @ AlgaeCal

  13. Alexandra
    Alexandra

    Thank you for these great exercises, I did it and I loved it. Thank you

    1. Blaire AlgaeCal
      Blaire AlgaeCal

      So glad you loved it, Alexandra! ❤️

      – Blaire @ AlgaeCal

  14. Margaret mcCarthy
    Margaret mcCarthy

    Is there ant way these exercises can be printed from my ipad

    1. Megan AlgaeCal
      Megan AlgaeCal

      Hi Margaret, good question!

      You can save a printable PDF copy of this blog post. Simply look for the green printer icon on the left side of your screen (there should be a column with 6 little squares – the printer icon will be on the bottom).

      Hope this helps, and glad you’re enjoying the exercises! 😊

      -Megan @ AlgaeCal

  15. Michèle Breton
    Michèle Breton

    I have very weak legs, especially the right one. I don’t know if I could do some of these exercises at all. Definitely not the step up exercise! Do you have any alternatives for folks that are partially or fully disabled? I will be 62 soon.
    Thank you very much,
    Michèle

    1. Megan AlgaeCal
      Megan AlgaeCal

      Hi Michèle, thanks for sharing and reaching out!

      Feel free to check out some of our other exercises " rel="nofollow ugc">here. We also provide modifications for most of our exercises.

      Hope this helps and that you’re able to find some exercises that are right for you! You may find it helpful to work with a physiotherapist or other professional who can tailor exercises to your needs. ❤️

      -Megan @ AlgaeCal

  16. Malle Sankala
    Malle Sankala

    Thank you. Looks good to me. Going to try it straight away.

    1. Blaire AlgaeCal
      Blaire AlgaeCal

      Awesome, Malle! 🙌

      – Blaire @ AlgaeCal

  17. JoAnn Halverson
    JoAnn Halverson

    Do you have exercises for seniors with bad balance?

    1. Blaire AlgaeCal
      Blaire AlgaeCal

      Thanks for reaching out, JoAnn! We have a great post on balance exercises here.

      Hope that helps! 💚

      – Blaire @ AlgaeCal

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