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Published on August 20, 2015

Forget those pretty muscles. Are you ‘functionally’ fit?

Forget those pretty muscles. Are you ‘functionally’ fit?

Fitness fads and trends are enough to make you swap your yoga mat for a bag of Oreos.

And now comes “functional fitness.” As opposed to what, dysfunctional fitness?

But this is no mere fad. Functional fitness is about making it easier to do your ADLs, what physical therapists call “activities of daily life.” It puts the emphasis on why and how you work out.

It’s less about rockin’ your bikini than preventing your back from seizing when you heft a bag of mulch. It keeps your shoulder from aching after toting a toddler or your neck from stiffening after hours spent hunched over a computer screen.

“I love this trend,” says Cape Cod Hospital physical therapist Melissa Palmer, PT, who works with clients at the hospital’s outpatient rehab center at 130 North Street in Hyannis.  “A person who has a fitness program based on function is not going to get the injuries of someone whose goal is to look good on the beach.”

Think about how a physical or occupational therapist helps people with injuries get back to their everyday tasks. Functional fitness works on the strength and balance that can help you avoid injury in the first place.

That could be as common as carrying groceries from your car or as specialized as a firefighter hauling 200 pounds of heavy hose.  But even if you can bench press 400 pounds at the gym, you may not be working the right muscles to help you do what you need to do, Palmer says.

Consider new mothers. “Many weren’t fit before they were pregnant,” Palmer says. “Now all of a sudden they are doing a lot more than they were used to doing.”

Palmer separates “pretty” muscles from “functional” ones. “Someone in the gym might be looking for those great pecs so they’re going to be bench-pressing a ridiculous amount of weight. But they’re not going to work on their back muscles because they’re more focused and more interested in the appearance.”

The good news is that functional fitness doesn’t require a lot of time or money. One University of Wisconsin-La Crosse study found that just 12 weeks of strength and balance training significantly improved body strength, cardiovascular endurance, agility, balance and shoulder flexibility in older men and women.

In the study, participants aged 58 to 78 learned simple and easy exercises, such as standing on one leg for 30 seconds or doing wall push-ups and lateral squats.

The test subjects exercised three days a week. Their “weights” were empty milk bottles filled with sand; the hand grips were the same as those used on everyday objects; and the bending exercises mimicked daily body postures, according to a report published in the Gundersen Medical Journal.

That isn’t to say personal trainers or therapists might not be helpful. It’s not always about what exercises you do but how mindful you are when doing them, says Palmer.  Professionals can evaluate that.

“They’ll look at your technique, they’ll look at your goals and they’ll try to make the two match up,” she says. Palmer suggests using someone certified by the National Strength and Conditioning Association.  The educational nonprofit sets standards for trainers who work with both athletic teams and the general population.

One important thing to remember: Whenever you are moving, whether it’s gardening or working out at the gym, keep your mind in the game.

“I always tell my patients to think about everything that they do,” Palmer says. “Old habits die hard but after a while, people do tend to get it. They have my voice in their heads.”

5 tips for functional fitness

So how does functional fitness translate into a routine? Here are some tips from Melissa Palmer, physical therapist for Cape Cod Healthcare:

  1. Do stretching exercises every day, strength training three times a week and aerobic exercise three or four days a week (on the days you’re not doing strength training).
  1. You don’t have to go to the gym. Try therapy bands for resistance or use things around your house, such as food cans, boxes of sugar, water bottles filled with sand.
  1. Use your own body for strength resistance push-ups and pull ups, for example. Novices or older people can start with wall push-ups.
  1. Core and posture are the two biggest things that help with balance. Try yoga for core strength and flexibility or Pilates for core strength and stability.
  1. Always stay mindful of how your body moves.

If you have questions about chronic pain or another physical issue, talk to your doctor.