Beth and Lee Jordan, both certified American Council on Exercise (ACE) health coaches and personal trainers based in Jacksonville Beach, Florida.
What are your fitness goals? Amazing endurance? Extraordinary strength? Lightning speed? If so, more power to you—literally. But many of us just want to stay healthy so we can keep doing the activities we need to do…and activities we love to do…for a good long time.
Try this test: Can you put your socks on standing up? Can you stand up from a chair without using your arms, sit back down, and repeat another 11 times within 30 seconds? Can you stand on one foot for 30 seconds? These are tests of functional fitness, sometimes called neuromotor or neuromuscular fitness.
The good news is that you can improve your functional fitness level with simple exercises. The goal is to increase your ability to do the activities that you need to do every day at home, at work and during recreational fun…such as lifting work files or children or grandchildren…carrying the laundry down to the basement and back…bending down to garden…keeping your balance getting in and out of the tub and when you’re out for a nice hike. It’s a combination of balance and power.
“Functional fitness exercises combine upper- and lower-body movements into what are known as compound exercises, while emphasizing core stability,” explain Lee and Beth Jordan, a husband-and-wife team of personal trainers with the American Council on Exercise (ACE). “They often mimic real everyday movements.”
These exercises are especially important as you age, when your muscles weaken and simple activities can feel more difficult. All the things you used to barely give a thought to can become challenging if you don’t give those muscles some extra attention.
Get started with these five functional exercises designed to help you keep living the active life you enjoy…for a long, long time.
Bent-Over Dumbbell Row
How to do it: Use a dumbbell with a weight that challenges you but that you can lift repeatedly. Stand next to a bench or chair and, holding the dumbbell in your right hand, bend at a 90-degree angle so that your back is parallel to the floor. Brace your left hand and left knee on the bench or chair. Your weight will be on your right foot, and your right hand should hang down directly under your shoulder, holding the weight. Keeping your back straight, head in line with your spine and abdominal muscles taut, pull the dumbbell up toward your shoulder as far as you can. Your elbow should remain higher than the dumbbell. Then lower the weight by straightening your arm toward the floor. Repeat several reps and then switch sides.
How to do it: Start by standing with your feet hip-width apart, one foot several inches in front of the other, with feet parallel. Slowly squat down as far as you’re able to, without losing balance and keeping your bent knee of the leg in front behind your toes. Your hands can be on your hips or your arms can be extended straight out in front of you. Rise to your starting position. Perform several reps and then switch legs.
How to do it: Start in a standing position. Keeping one leg in place, step your other foot out in front of you and bend your knees—your ultimate goal is for them to both reach 90-degree angles. (Once you get good at this, your front thigh and back shin should be parallel to the floor). Push off with your front leg to return to your starting position. Maintain a straight spine and taut abdominals throughout the movement, keeping your arms at your sides or your hands on your hips. Perform several reps, alternating legs with each lunge. (Once you’re comfortable with the forward lunge, try side lunges and walking lunges with twists.)
What it helps you do: Maintain a healthy posture while sitting, standing and walking.
How to do it: Lie on your stomach, facing straight down, with your head in line with your spine, legs extended straight, toes pointing, and your arms extended straight out in front of you, palms facing each other. Simultaneously, lift both your arms and your legs a few inches off the floor. Make sure your head stays aligned with your spine during the entire movement, and avoid arching your back or lifting your head. Hold the lift for a few seconds, and then gently return your arms and legs to the starting position. Perform several reps.
How to do it: You’ll need to walk during this exercise. Don’t worry if you don’t have much space—this is fun if you have a lawn, driveway or walkway to use, but you can also just go in circles inside. Start in a standing position with a dumbbell beside each foot. (Choose a weight that’s challenging for you but not so heavy that you can’t lift it.) Keeping your back straight, squat down and grip the handles of the weights, lifting them as you stand back up, keeping your weight on your heels. Then take short, quick steps as you walk for up to 100 feet. Remember to breathe throughout the walk. Set the weights back down on the floor. Rest and repeat.
How often should you do these exercises? The American College of Sports Medicine recommends about two or three 20-to-30-minute sessions each week. You’ll still want to keep up a regular routine of aerobics, strength training and flexibility exercises, too.
As with any new exercise routine, it’s always a good idea to check with your doctor before getting started…and that’s especially true if you have any joint problems or other physical challenges. And as with any physical activity, if it starts to hurt, stop.
Are these five exercises the only way to improve functional fitness? Of course not. Yoga and tai chi are also great, and they “count” toward the recommendations. You can even do functional exercises with a paper towel tube.
But if you’re looking for a streamlined routine, the five exercises above all work together to improve your ability to do the things that matter every day.
Note: The images in this story that demonstrate each exercise are used with permission, courtesy of the American Council on Exercise. You can see more in their Exercise Library.