Benefits of Functional Training for Older Adults

BY Leslie Mary Olsen TIMESeptember 19, 2014 PRINT

Day-to-day activities account for many of the insidious injuries faced by older Americans. Carrying grocery bags, reaching for an item on the top shelf, bending over to pick up a piece of clothing, playing with children, and even getting in and out of the shower can lead to unexpected injury.

Often the injury is small with little consequence, but occasionally the action results in a fall with catastrophic results.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Each year, one in every three adults age 65 and older falls, which can cause moderate to severe injuries, such as hip fractures and head traumas, and can increase the risk of early death.”

In 2010, the cost of these injuries on the health care system in the United States was $30 billion, but the CDC’s projections for the year 2020 are significantly greater. “By 2020, the annual direct and indirect cost of fall injuries is expected to reach $67.7 billion,” the agency estimates.

The problem is in direct correlation to the baby boomers now reaching and surpassing 65 years of age. One way to mitigate the risk of injury and build up resilience is to incorporate functional training into your fitness routine.

Research and Benefits

Functional training is an integrative approach to exercise that combines cardiovascular activities, coordination, strength training, and flexibility exercise. It thus differs from the traditional methods that work one isolated part of the body—one group of muscles or one distinct muscle—at a time.

A research review published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity in 2010 confirms that cardiovascular fitness can improve function and mitigate injury in older adults.

“There is a consistency of findings across studies and a range of outcome measures related to functional independence; regular aerobic activity and short-term exercise programmes confer a reduced risk of functional limitations and disability in older age,” stated Canadian researchers Donald Paterson and Darren Warburton in the report.

Another review published in the Journal of Aging Research in 2012 affirms the importance of flexibility training in the same population.

“Flexibility training interventions in older adults are often effective at increasing joint range of motion in various joints, and various functional outcomes can be improved,” stated lead author Liza Stathokostas and her colleagues from the University of Western Ontario.

Increasing capacity, reducing the risk of injury, and enhancing independence are the main goals of functional training for seniors. However, functional training is good for everyone, from elite athletes to the fitness novice, because it combines upper and lower body movements, boosts agility, and promotes strength and flexibility.

By working the body in the motions of pushing, bending, sitting, pulling, lifting, reaching, balancing, and twisting, the core muscles of the torso are engaged at the same time that other muscle groups are targeted.

In addition, functional training improves balance and helps mitigate bone loss through movements that support body weight, which helps prevent osteoporosis. The multijoint, multiplane movements engage the body’s stabilizers, which improves coordination, prevents injuries, challenges the brain, and enhances the ability to cope with daily activities.

Sample Routines

Below are some examples of functional training you can add to your fitness regimen. If you have any concerns with a health issue that may compromise your balance or if you are a beginner, be sure to check with your health care provider prior to engaging in physical activity.

Stability Ball Routines

Stability ball can be used in a variety of exercises for both upper and lower body. In addition to improving balance, it is a great tool for engaging the core muscles.

It may take a bit of practice to feel comfortable with this gear, so take some time to adjust by simply getting on and off the ball or sitting and rolling the ball back and forth.

Abdominal crunches:
• Sit on the ball with feet wide apart. Beginners should start close to a wall or stable object and position the feet against the bottom surface for support.
• Roll down onto your back and place your hands behind the head with elbows outward.
• Lift up from the stomach without pulling up on the neck.
• Come down and repeat.

Bicep curls:
• Select a weight that is comfortable for 10–15 repetitions.
• Sit on the ball with feet and knees far enough apart to not hit the other leg during the movement.
• Lean forward slightly, so your elbow is positioned on the inside of your thigh.
• Start with the arm extended downward. Flex the elbow, lifting the weight upward and turned in slightly. Keep the elbow in contact with the leg at all times.
• Repeat on the other side.

Standing Exercises

These exercises work multiple muscle groups in the upper and lower body, including the core, hips, buttocks, and thighs. They also improve balance, stability, and strength.

Simple squat:
• Stand with feet shoulder-width apart.
• Bend the knees and lower your upper body, flexing at the hips. Make sure the knees do not come forward in front of the feet.
• Repeat 10–15 times.

Reverse lunges:
• Start with feet shoulder-width apart.
• Step back with one foot, lowering the moving knee toward the floor without pushing forward on the front leg.
• Return to the starting position.
• Repeat 10–15 times on the same side or alternate from side to side.

Dumbbell rows:
• Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and one foot staggered behind the other by no more than 2–3 feet. Beginners should stand beside a wall or stable object for support.
• Extend one arm down toward the floor, holding a dumbbell that is comfortable for 10–15 repetitions. The other hand should be placed on top of the supporting leg’s thigh.
• Pull the weight up by bending the elbow and lift from the shoulder, allowing the weight to come up to the waistline.
• Repeat on the other side.

Leslie Mary Olsen is a certified personal trainer, certified health coach, fitness coaching specialist, and licensed massage therapist. She holds a master’s degree in health policy and has over 30 years of experience in the health and wellness field.

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