Defining What Is Functional Fitness After 50


In the last decade and more specifically, in the last five years, fitness and exercise trends are moving to “functional fitness” and away from more traditional measures and application of fitness.

If your early adult years were laced with Jane’s “feel the burn” and high impact aerobics or three sets of 10 strength training exercises you may be mentally stuck in what was, what worked, or at least seemed to and what you need now. Yes, your needs have changed but even a 20-something today has new science to use and a more functional approach is optimal.

Today’s post explores and explains traditional, functional, and what I suggest is most ideal as an integrated approach.

If you liken this to medicine, it’s a similar model. Traditionally, in Western medicine we test, get diagnosed, get a prescription. Functionally, we get assessed and treat our symptoms and underlying cause. In an integrated approach, we might use signs and symptoms to determine which testing we need and then gather options for treatment based on what you as a patient (or in fitness, a client) want to do.

Traditional Fitness

If you look at the chart below, you can see that traditionally, we’ve tested physical parameters of fitness that may or may not have anything to do with our success in daily activities of life. In fact, for years the sit-up has been a controversial topic among fitness pros. I for one, have not used sit-ups personally, and was adamant about staff members using it, and never prescribed it for clients, for the past 15 years. It wasn’t until the last 6 months that the US Army finally recognized that sit-ups were injurious and decided to remove them from their physical fitness testing battery.

Functional Fitness

The sit and reach is another test that has faults. Whether you do well on the test or not does not directly correlate to whether or not you can move well through full range of motion or you have a decreased risk for back pain or other compensations while going about your daily life.

Functional Fitness

Let’s move on to functional exercise. The difference here is there isn’t a comparison to normative values that determines an individual’s status. Instead, functional fitness is about assessing where you are, how that information translates into what kind of programming will be most beneficial for you, and how to set early workout intensity to support progress without injury.

The existing argument, if you will, about whether an exercise is functional is misleading. Many will say that lifting weights using machine weights is not functional. Some will say that lifting weights with free weights like a body builder would is not functional. Others yet will say only activities that focus on body weight are truly functional.

Some say that all exercises are on a continuum from least to most functional. I think that’s wrong.

I would suggest the label “functional” applies to whether or not something helps you reach the objective you’ve identified for yourself.

If you are an older adult new to exercise who needs to focus on bone density, machine weights are functional. If you want to be a body builder, then isolating muscle groups to tone, define and look good on stage, is functional. If you want to pick up grandchildren and continue to garden, all kinds of activity and weight loads will be functional for you.

Integrated Fitness

An integrated approach looks at outcomes or need-based starting points. If you’re not sleeping well, there is an exercise prescription for that. If you’re stressed, there is an exercise prescription for that. If you have signs or symptoms like chronic fatigue, “hangover” effect in the morning without having had the fun, belly bloat or digestive issues, there is an exercise prescription coupled with nutrition change for that.

Just as we’re learning with diet, sleep needs, and the way we deal with stress, there is no one size fits all. It’s unique to you. Depending on your goals and then upon your preferences (insisting on doing anything you hate is not functional!) an integrated outcome that benefits sleep, stress, digestion, and addresses the signs and symptoms that you’re not at your optimal health is ideal. You’ll use bits and pieces of each.

The suggestion here is that you instead of starting with an assessment of how many sit-ups and push-ups you can do, you begin with your current lifestyle habits and look at how can exercise support those. Look at how you move and correcting anything that prevents exercise from being comfortable. Then there will be a >< effect. Your lifestyle habits will positively affect fitness and your fitness will positively affect lifestyle habits. You can start from either side.

Join my community for special updates that I only share with my subscribers. This week I dive into a brand new study about how much weight you need to lift.

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