Functional fitness: How to train older people


Diane is 67 and sedentary. She’ll never be interested in running a 10K or pumping iron at a health club. In her mind, it’s too late for all that. Like a lot of people in this country - 36 million Americans are over 65, and that number will grow to 40 million in the next three years - Diane is aging without the benefit of regular exercise, and slowly but surely, she is losing strength, flexibility and balance. Oye.

Exercise scientists would say that Diane is losing the ability to do ADL - the activities of daily living. She can’t carry as many groceries as she used to. It’s harder for her to get out of a chair. Putting the dishes away is becoming too much of a stretch. It’s a cruel trick of nature. Use it or lose it. The less Diane does now, the less she’ll be able to do in the future. Diane’s world will grow smaller as she grows weaker, less agile and more vulnerable to accidents, illness, disease and depression.

Can anything help reverse Di’s downward slide? Yes! It’s called functional fitness, and it’s been gaining in popularity over the past five years because it really helps older people remain mobile and independent as they age.

Functional fitness won’t get Diane ready to swim a mile or bench press 100 pounds. It’s not the kind of traditional exercise program that focuses on increasing lung capacity or overall strength. Functional fitness is targeted training. The goal is to enable older people to do the activities of everyday life: get in and out of a car, make a bed, climb the stairs, pick up a grandchild.

According to a recent study sponsored by ACE (American Council on Exercise), not only do the simple, at-home functional fitness exercises work and work well, they also work quickly. The older adults who participated showed significant “real-world benefits” in less than a month!

In the ACE-sponsored study, participants did functional exercises three times weekly for four consecutive weeks. Each session involved a 5-minute warm-up and a circuit of 12 exercises that included moves like chair stands with a chest stretch, penny pick-ups and seated leg extensions. Participants finished with a 10-minute cool down, and they worked at a moderate intensity level.

How can you participate in a functional fitness program of your own?

One way is to book a little time with a qualified personal trainer who specializes in working with older people. A good physical therapist can also help you design a functional fitness program you can do at home using everyday objects. To choose the right person, ask questions. Make sure they know what functional fitness is. Ask for an at-home program, and detail the activities you need help with. (The specific exercises used in the study are available through the ACE Web site:

Osteoporosis and exercise: Short bursts are best

Exercise is a great way to beef up your bones. If you have osteoporosis now, or are at risk for developing it, you should be involved in a regular program of weight-bearing exercises that will, over time, increase bone mass and strength and reduce your risk of fracture.

Here’s the news, as reported by the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: Intensity matters. Running, for instance, will produce more bone formation than walking. And short bursts of exercise are better for building bone than prolonged workouts.

Indeed, according to research done at Indiana University, the majority of new bone formation - more than 95 percent - is stimulated by the first 40 repetitions of an exercise. So if you are keen on using exercise to build bone, you’re better off increasing the frequency of your training sessions than making each session longer.

The best thing you can do to prevent osteoporosis is to develop a lifelong exercise habit at an early age. Yes, you can create new bone as an older person, but the greatest gains in bone strength come in your pre-adolescent and adolescent years.

Marilynn Preston is a fitness expert, personal trainer and speaker on healthy lifestyle issues. She welcomes reader questions, which can be sent to