Forget obstacle races, adult jungle gyms (yes, they’re a real thing), or even a daily jog—the smartest way for adults over 50 to up their fitness game is to focus on more practical matters: functional training. That’s workout speak for exercises that directly relate to your everyday activities. And it’s one of the top fitness trends for 2015, according to a survey put out by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).
“Baby boomers are a pretty active group,” says Atlanta–based fitness expert Walter Thompson, PhD, who was the lead author on the ACSM’s survey. “They’re walking, golfing, playing tennis, signing up for fun runs, you name it. But for the most part their exercise routines and habits aren’t doing a whole lot to help them age they way they’d like to.”
Thompson’s certainly not arguing that you should stop any of those activities. On the contrary, he says incorporating functional training into your daily routine will make you better at your favorite activities while also increasing your overall strength, stamina, flexibility and balance.
“Going for a daily walk, having a standing tee time, taking a Zumba class two or three times a week are all good things to do for your health,” he explains. “But they’re really only working the same muscles over and over again. Functional fitness would be in addition to whatever you’re already doing, and it would correct muscle imbalances.”
The key is to find exercises that are tailored to your personal lifestyle, your short- and long-term health goals, and your current level of strength and mobility. But how? After all, you’re not going to see the words “functional fitness” in any gym class description. Thompson suggests that you start by asking yourself, What would I like to be able to do? (Go for a long walk without getting winded, play 18 holes of golf without having your back pay a price the next day, fight computer slouch, reach high shelves at home without screwing up your shoulder—there are many possible answers.)
The next step is to describe what you want to do—or do better—to a certified personal trainer or the fitness pro at your gym or health club. Yes, you can certainly Google (for example) “shoulder mobility exercises” and quickly download a handful of moves to try on your own. But the risk of injuring yourself with this DIY approach is high for those over 50, Thompson warns. If you can save up and set aside the money for even one or two sessions with a pro, your chances of seeing real gains are that much greater.
“What the average person won’t know is that to improve one body part or one function, you often need to address and incorporate other body parts,” says Thompson. “So that person who wants to extend their arm reach so they can get to those high shelves won’t know that they need to develop the muscles not just in their shoulders, but in their entire upper body, their core, and even their legs and glutes.”
If working with a personal trainer isn’t realistic for you, you’re next best move is to build a resistance-training routine that hits every major muscle group. (Check out the next section for some good moves to get you going.) Beginners should start with their own bodyweight as resistance. Do one to three sets of each exercise two or three days a week. On alternate days work on flexibility exercises (think stretches or yoga). And don’t forget that your heart and lungs need attention, too—that means cardio to the tune of 150 minutes each week.
“After six weeks you should see a noticeable difference,” says Thompson. “Carrying those groceries should be easier, or you’ll hit the golf ball better. But even more important, you’ll have taken steps to safeguard your strength, mobility and balance for the long term. And you’ll have a huge confidence boost.”
What functional exercises look like
To be considered a functional exercise, the move must be rooted in natural, everyday motions and involve multiple muscles moving through different planes. To get your groceries out of the car and into your cupboards, for example, you bend, lift, twist and reach.
Here’s a peek at how three common strength exercises become functional fitness exercises:
Plank: One of the best core-strengthening exercises out there, planks can double up as a balance challenge when you perform the move on your side, supporting your body using just one leg and arm. From this position, planks can also triple as a mobility exercise when you thread your free hand through the open space under your ribs and then pull it back up and extend the arm high above you (but not behind you).
Upper body move: Instead of bringing a hand weight up toward your shoulder—the basic bicep curl—reach across your body and bring the weight up in a diagonal, cross-body motion. The move begins with the weight near your lower hip or outer thigh and continues as you pull your arm up and out. In the end position the working half of your body forms a capital “Y.” (The non-working arm is down at your side or hand is on hip.) You’ve now worked not only your bicep but also your entire arm, shoulder, chest and core. Plus, you’ve done some good for your flexibility and balance.
Lunge: The basic lunge calls for you to lift and lower yourself to the ground, keeping your torso upright, in either a forward or backward motion. But when in life do you just move up and down? If you lean forward while lunging, as if you’re going to pick something up, the move is now a functional exercise. (Be sure to keep your back straight and your knee and ankle aligned.) Other ways to get more from a lunge? Simply travel across the room instead of staying in place (this is good for balance). Lunging from side to side (lateral lunges) will also help your hip flexibility and fire up often-neglected muscles in your glute and groin. Try bringing your knee up toward your chest before stepping out to the side for even more of a mobility challenge. When you’ve got the form down pat, add a cross-body reach at the end of the lunge.