Want to fight off old age? Get into functional fitness

Functional fitness is a phrase that’s been kicking around for some years now. In fact, it regularly shows up on those lists of top fitness trends we see every January.

But how many people know what it means, let alone think about what it might mean to them?  If you’re feeling stiffer, more achy, weaker, less sure-footed, or less agile than you used to be, functional fitness is a concept you need to know.

Simply put, functional fitness means training your body for the activities of daily life. It’s not about looking good in a bathing suit or outcompeting your younger neighbor. It’s a practical approach designed to help you handle everyday movements with ease, and without pain or risk of injury, no matter what your age.

How do you get there? Cardio sessions and yoga classes are good, but they’re not enough. What’s needed is a holistic approach that addresses five dimensions of your body’s functioning:

Core strength & stability – Your core muscles are your body’s support structure; they’re also the drivers and stabilizers for everything you do.  A weak core increases risks of falling and is often the root cause of back pain.

Flexibility – When joints are stiff and muscles are shortened by inactivity, movements are limited or distorted. Some muscles are underused and other overused, leading to aches, pains, and injuries.

Balance –Balance issues are often overlooked in fitness routines, but shouldn’t be. One in three Americans over 65 suffers a fall each year.

Muscular strength – As we age, we steadily lose lean muscle mass if we’re not doing something to build it–and those losses accelerate after the age of 50. That’s why strength training is even more important for older people than for younger adults. (Here’s my advice on how to get started.)

Cardiovascular endurance – Regularly challenging your cardiovascular system is essential to being fit. The sweet spot is an intensity level you can maintain for 30 minutes but still elevates your heart rate and breathing.

In future posts I’ll talk about what to do for functional fitness and how to get it all done efficiently. If you want the whole story, you can find it in Chapters 3 and 4 of my book, Just Move!

Image: Black Swan Photographers

By |2018-06-29T19:32:35+00:00June 29th, 2018|Fitness Over 50, Functional Fitness, Just Move!|Comments Off on Want to fight off old age? Get into functional fitness

A Walk Isn’t Just Good Exercise. It’s Also a Chance to Practice Walking

It may sound strange to think about practicing something we’ve all been doing since we were toddlers.  But going for a walk is a perfect opportunity to generally improve the ways you move. Use your walks as a chance to focus on:

Body awareness – Pay close attention to how you’re moving.  Are your strong glute and thigh muscles driving your movement? Is your body relaxed as you stride?  Ideally, you’re moving forward in a smooth, slightly rolling motion with your arms swing loosely in opposition to your step (your left arm swinging forward as you step with your right foot, and the reverse).

Posture – Remind yourself to keep your chest up and pelvis tucked, so your backbone is in its neutral, slightly S-curved position. Pull your shoulder blades together in the back, letting your arms hang at your side. Try to keep your neck in line with your back and your chin up.  Think of this as your “proud walk” –straight and tall.

Breathing – Inflate your lungs fully as you’re moving, and exhale slowly until they are emptied. Not only will this send more oxygen through your system, it will encourage good posture.

Gait – Many hip and knee problems can be eased by correcting issues with gait, which can be subtle.  A good trainer or physical therapist can spot dysfunctional habits you may want to work on. Meanwhile, are your feet and knees pointed in the direction you’re going, or do they drift inward or outward? Do your feet maintain their arches, and are they aligned with your hips? Does your walk demonstrate economy of motion, or does it involve extraneous movements, like arms pumping from side to side?

When you turn your walks into mini-training sessions, you’ll be building good habits of movement every time you hit the walking trail.

By |2018-06-22T20:36:28+00:00June 22nd, 2018|Uncategorized|Comments Off on A Walk Isn’t Just Good Exercise. It’s Also a Chance to Practice Walking

An Easy Way to Limit the Damage from Too Much Sitting

I’m always looking for small changes in daily habits that can yield significant health benefits. This one is easy and practically painless: whenever you’re sitting for some period of time, be sure to get up and move around every 30 minutes.

What’s the big deal about taking a movement break whenever you spend more than half an hour in a chair?

Your favorite chair is not your friend

You may already know the litany of ways that too much sitting can be harmful, increasing risks of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, depression, and cognitive decline. “Sitting is the new smoking,” as the meme goes, and global health data bear that out. This is bad news for couch potatoes, considering that the average American now spends somewhere between 10 and 14 hours a day on his or her keister.

Researchers still don’t fully understand the physiological reasons why sitting for hours at a time is so damaging to the body.  What they have learned, though, is that you can’t work off those effects.  That’s because extended sitting increases blood levels of harmful proteins and, as this recent article explains, even a vigorous workout won’t eliminate them. That exercise session is still good for you, of course. But the takeaway is how important it is to avoid prolonged immobility.

An everyday fitness strategy  

It’s easy to getting absorbed in what you’re doing and work or watch TV right through the 30-minute mark, so some people set reminder alarms on a laptop, phone, or watch when they first sit down.  To make the most of your movement breaks, use them as a chance to stretch, get a drink of water, or both – a fitness trifecta!

Image: bst2012/Adobe Stock

By |2018-05-17T20:50:33+00:00May 17th, 2018|Fitness Over 50, Just Move!|Comments Off on An Easy Way to Limit the Damage from Too Much Sitting

What Mothers Need to Know About Staying Active

Mother’s Day is a perfect occasion let your mom or mother-in-law know you want her to be healthy, happy, and vigorous for years to come. If she’s not already doing something to stay fit, it’s not too late—and you can help! Joining her in a walk, a stretch, or a workout is a great way to celebrate the holiday. You can also encourage her to take steps toward a well-rounded fitness program, keeping a few basic principles in mind.

1) Getting or staying fit doesn’t have to be arduous. Regular, moderate exercise goes a long way toward reducing risks of injury or chronic disease. The keys are consistency and finding activities Mom might enjoy. If they include socializing, so much the better! A class at the local community center or Y could be just the ticket.

2) Doing something for balance is critical.  One in three people over 65 suffers a fall each year, and your mother may not realize that a lack of core strength can lead to a tumble. Encourage her to do core exercises like the plank, rather than crunches or sit-ups, which can strain necks or backs. She could also try simple balance-boosters like standing on one foot for 20 seconds or walking heel to toe.

3) Building strength is more important than many women think.  Loss of lean muscle mass accelerates with age, leaving older moms more vulnerable to injuries, falls, and osteoporosis. You can help yours by showing her bodyweight exercises she can work up to gradually (see my earlier post on this topic). You could also gift her with a set of resistance bands, some light dumbbells, or some sessions with a knowledgeable trainer.  

4) Regular stretching can be life-changing. Bad backs, throbbing knees, painful necks and shoulders—so many everyday aches and pains trace back to the tightness and stiffness that come with age. Stress and too much sitting only make it worse. Gentle stretching can ease pain and stiffness while helping Mom stay mobile and avoid falls, too. Stretching is also a great way to ease into a fitness program.

5) The most important message: Just Move! Most of us slow down a bit with age, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the more science learns about aging, the more we understand the physical and mental health risks of being sedentary. Remind Mom that she deserves to spend time taking care of herself. After years of filling multiple roles, she’s earned it!

Images: (top) Galina Barskaya/Fotolia/Adobe Stock; kali9/iStockphoto

By |2018-05-10T22:24:26+00:00May 10th, 2018|Fitness Over 50, Uncategorized|Comments Off on What Mothers Need to Know About Staying Active

Not Getting Results from your Workout? Here’s the Secret

As I was cooling down after a workout at the gym this week, a friend came up to me with a question I’ve heard more than once.

“Jim, I don’t get it,” he exclaimed in frustration. “I work out all the time, but I’m not getting any results. What’s the secret?”

It’s true that I often ran into him at the gym, but I’d never seen him do anything but walk on the treadmill at an easy pace. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, and any exercise is better than none. But would that alone help my buddy get leaner, faster, and stronger? Not a chance.

What the science tells us

The reason why goes back to the principle of progressive overload, which was developed by a military doctor as he rehabilitated soldiers after World War II. It became one of the foundations of modern exercise science. In essence, it states that to improve any kind of physical performance, you’ve got to ask your body to do just a little bit more than it could do before. That’s how to stimulate positive adaptations that make a measurable difference over time.

Joe Talbert, a top trainer at Denver’s Greenwood Athletic and Tennis Club, puts it succinctly: “If you want to improve, you need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. That’s how you get stronger and better.”

Expanding your comfort zone

By no means am I saying you have to drive yourself to the limits with every exercise. That will only lead to burnout or injury. But if you want to make real fitness gains, get in the habit of pushing gently to the edge of your comfort zone at least once in every workout…and then go a little beyond.

For instance, my friend could increase his pace or incline for part of his treadmill session. If you’re doing strength training, you can add repetitions, work on range of motion, get strict with exercise form, or gradually increase weight. (Chapter 8 of my book offers more ideas.)

Here’s a tip I use myself: every workout, I do at least one exercise I absolutely hate (burpees, anyone?). If I hate it, it probably hits an area of weakness…which means it’s something I really need to be doing. Even if you don’t draw on your most-hated list, you can pick one thing in each session—just one—to work on. Try it, and you might be surprised by how quickly you progress.

Image: Matthew Pardue

By |2018-05-03T23:44:58+00:00May 3rd, 2018|Fitness Over 50|Comments Off on Not Getting Results from your Workout? Here’s the Secret