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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.