Functional fitness is the key to strength, health, and happiness in our wiser years
Brendan Rolfe, DipA, PTS, NWS
Updated Sep 27, 2018
True functional fitness training is the real fountain of youth. In fact, you can be in better shape now than 20 years ago just by incorporating and strengthening a few simple yet effective movement patterns.
I recently shared a room with family—40 to 80 years of life expertise—and presented the term “aging gracefully.” Unsurprisingly, it was met with laughter and humorous counter-quips. Well, the truth is that it all boils down to one simple concept: use it or lose it.
Range of motion, bone density, and true functional fitness
“Functional” has been a buzzword, mostly improperly used, in the fitness industry for the last decade or so. In my experience, many personal trainers have applied this term to any exercise that is a compound movement, where you bend at multiple joints. Worse yet, they have applied this term to just merging any two or more exercises together.
But true functional fitness is more specific to the exerciser. It is exercises that mimic movements in the exerciser’s everyday life: squatting to pick something up, twisting and reaching under load, lifting something overhead away from the centreline of your body, and so on.
A good functional exercise should take you through a full range of motion for multiple muscles and usually does not require a tremendous amount of resistance to perform (body weight is often sufficient).
The best exercises for aging gracefully focus on resistance training for bone density and range of motion training for flexibility. Studies have shown that increasing physical activity has protective effects against not only cardiovascular disease and physical ineptitude, but also cognitive diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. So with this in mind, why wouldn’t you?
The functional workout
Check out these five everyday movements that will keep you long, strong, and bendy.
Find your motivation
Motivation! It can be hard to find when you’ve lost it, or it can fuel you while you’re down. If you want to get active, but don’t know where to start, there are options: pick up a sport (Pickleball is one of the fastest growing in North America), join a club (golf or hiking anyone?), or, if you really want to supercharge your fitness journey, enlist a personal trainer’s help for a few sessions to set you on the right path!
Additionally, if you’re feeling a little down, it might be due to a vitamin imbalance or nutritional deficiency. Consult your health care practitioner to see what you might be lacking!
Of course, aging gracefully is more than just working out regularly (though this will make a big difference). To make your golden years truly golden, you have to challenge yourself daily and make it about you!
Take a healthy cooking class (going green has never tasted so good!).
Do things not because they’re easy, but because they are difficult. Take stairs instead of elevators and escalators, and walk or ride your bike to work.
Continue being a student. Take a college class or learn a new language (there are so many apps out there, making learning self-directed and fun).
Get more friends and family in your life! Studies show that the more we share of ourselves with others, the better we age.
Split Stance Resistance Band Rotations
3 sets of 10 repetitions
Muscles targeted: core, glutes, shoulders
Begin by fastening your resistance band at shoulder height to an object that will not move. Situate yourself so that you’re perpendicular to the band, with your inside leg forward and bent, and your outside leg back and straight (on your toe, like a high lunge).
Grasp the band with both hands and straighten your arms, being careful not to shrug your shoulders. Allowing your head to rotate with your shoulders and keeping your arms straight, pull your hands to the open side of your body, as your arms become in line with the band.
Take a deep inhale here, and then exhale as you rotate back to starting position. You may need to increase the resistance of the band at this point by going further away from the anchor.
Begin with a weight in your hands, feet hip-width apart, maintaining a neutral chin and a flat back throughout the entire exercise.
Hinge forward at the hips and allow your arms and the weight to freely float forward underneath you, with minimal knee bend, until the tension in your legs and maybe lower back don’t allow you to bend any further down.
Take a deep exhale as you pull the weight in toward your belly button, being careful not to shrug your shoulders. Allow the weight to go back down and inhale. Exhale and return to starting position by pushing your hips forward and pulling your shoulder blades down.
3 sets of 10 repetitions
Muscles targeted: shoulders
Find your favourite wall (if you don’t have one handy, a tree, sign pole, or light post will do). Stand with your back to the wall and slide down the wall until 90-degree angles are made at your hips and knees, as though you were sitting in a chair.
At the same time, orient your arms so that they are also touching the wall: elbows in line with shoulders, bent at 90-degree angles, backs of your hands touching the wall (palms forward). Slowly slide your hands up the wall, attempting to touch them as high as possible overhead, but stopping before either your elbows or hands lift away from the wall. When you feel they are about to lift (or do lift), slide down to starting position on the wall.
Continue this motion; your head, back, backs of your elbows, and backs of your hands should maintain contact with the wall at all times.
Assisted Single-Leg, Straight-Leg Deadlift, with a One-Arm Row
Find a solid object to hold on to at about waist height that won’t move, such as a sign pole, a bike rack, or the back of a couch. Stand roughly three-quarters of your arm’s length away, and hold on with your left hand.
With your weight in your right heel and toes facing straight forward, imagine that your body (from the back of your head to your left heel) is nailed to a board, and slowly hinge your upper body forward like a see-saw, reaching your right hand toward the floor.
Once you find the end range of the tension in the back of your leg (hopefully with at least your fingertips touching the floor) take a deep inhale, and then exhale and raise to starting position.
Find a solid object to hold on to that won’t move, such as a stop sign pole, a bike rack, or the back of a couch. Stand roughly three-quarters of your arm’s-length away, with your feet about shoulder-width apart, and toes turned out at 45 degrees.
While maintaining as tall a posture as possible through your neck and spine (chin neutral), let your hips sink straight down as close to the ground as possible, ensuring that your knees track outward, toward your toes, and that your heels remain glued to the floor.
When you reach the bottom of your squat, take a deep inhale, and then push through your heels to stand back up to starting position, ensuring that your knees continue to track over your toes until you’re standing fully.
Brendan Rolfe, DipA, PTS, NWS
Brendan Rolfe, DipA, PTS, specializes in functional movement and athletic training in Vancouver, where he strives to bring healthy lifestyle choices to every household.