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Training for life: Functional fitness

Being physically fit does not mean you have to be an elite athlete. It does not mean you have to have muscles like Arnold Schwarzenegger, win an Olympic medal or scale a mountain. For most of us, these aren't possibilities, anyway. What is possible is a basic fitness level, one that allows us to perform the activities of daily living. We need, at the very least, to be functionally fit.

Maybe in your day-to-day life you need to climb stairs, lift a toddler, carry a bag of groceries, put dishes away on a high shelf or vacuum up the dog hair. Functional fitness training refers to exercises that help you perform these activities more easily, without pain or strain. Consider it training for life, not for events.

A functional fitness exercise might mimic the activity that you need to do. For instance, if you routinely find yourself picking up a small child, you need to strengthen the muscles in your legs, hips, abdomen, spine and arms. You also need to improve your balance. While walking for 30 minutes on a treadmill will help you improve your cardiovascular health, as well as strengthen your legs, hips and buttocks, it won't really help you in bending and lifting. A better, more functional exercise is a squat where you lift a weight off the floor that is in front of you.

A functional fitness exercise might also involve strengthening opposing muscles. If your job requires that you sit for most of eight hours, over time the muscles in your buttocks and abdomen can become weak, while the muscles in your lower back and hips become tight. This can cause back pain and reduced stability. If you can't routinely stand and break the habit of prolonged sitting, you need to incorporate exercises that strengthen your abdominals and gluts (butt muscles) while stretching the hips and lower back.

Functional fitness might mean strengthening a weakness. People who have a condition affecting their balance or muscle control, such as a stroke, may find one side of the body is stronger than the other. They will need to isolate and strengthen the affected side for improved function.

Your first step toward improved functional fitness is to determine your goals. Do you want to be able to climb stairs more easily? Weed in your garden? Dance a two-step with your spouse? Put a carry-on bag in the overhead bin on a plane? Once you know what you want to achieve, you need to identify activities that will help you do so. If you haven't exercised in a while, talk with your health care provider to find out if you are healthy enough to start an exercise program. Your provider may recommend a physical therapy consultation or suggest that you meet with a personal trainer who can help you create a safe and appropriate exercise program that will achieve your goals.

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