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Functional fitness is having its moment in the spotlight. It seems everyone has a work-related muscular imbalance or weakness. For seniors, these imbalances and weaknesses have probably been around for decades. They need help improving their functional fitness so they can be independent and live active lives. In this article, we'll discuss functional fitness for seniors—what it is and how to improve it.
Functional fitness is a way to help people perform daily tasks with ease. It includes exercises that mimic the movements of daily activities. Walking, squatting, bending, pushing, and pulling are examples. Three key elements of functional fitness for seniors are balance, mobility, and strength. Improving these three aspects of physical fitness helps seniors:
Maintain a healthy body weight
Reduce the risk of falling
Make activities of daily living easier
Boost emotional health
People used to believe aging meant slowing down, that physical and mental decline was natural. But science has repeatedly proven that isn't the case. Slowing down is what causes physical and cognitive decline.
Seniors who "slow down" after retirement may have some lingering issues—an old injury, stiff joints, tight muscles, or general weakness. As a personal trainer, you can help them improve their functional fitness and set the stage for a healthier, more fulfilling, and active lifestyle.
About 72 million people in the US fall into the Baby Boomer population, those born between 1944-1964. Many are still working but many more have been long retired from their careers. The goal of this generation was to work in a career for 20-30 years and then "take it easy" in retirement. However, working at a desk for 20-30 years, then retiring to "slow down" has taken a toll on this generation's health.
The goal of functional fitness for seniors is to improve balance, mobility, and strength for daily activities. How is that done?
Balance is the ability to remain upright in a steady position. Balance is an essential element of functional fitness. As people age—and if they don't stay active—muscle weakness reduces the strength and flexibility of joints, increasing the risk of falling. Some research suggests cognitive impairments typically associated with aging also increase the risk of falling. But exercise not only increases joint stability to prevent falls, but it also improves cognitive functioning as well.
The heel-to-toe walk is an excellent exercise for improving balance. Another exercise is the karaoke or grapevine walk.
Mobility is the ability to move freely and easily. A senior with limited mobility can't perform activities of daily living. For instance, if a senior can't freely move their shoulders, it may limit their ability to grocery shop, cook, or do laundry.
If their knee joints are stiff or swollen, then they may avoid moving altogether. Of course, this would have the opposite effect they want—instead of decreasing pain, "slowing down" would increase health issues and the risk of injury. Encourage senior clients to "just move." Let them start at a comfortable pace and frequency and build up.
Strength is the element of fitness which makes balance and mobility possible. Without adequate strength, a senior's quality of life will quickly decline. Without strong muscles, bone and joint health suffer. Include resistance training in each senior fitness program to maintain physical fitness, independence, and quality of life.
Let's take an activity from daily life and turn it into a functional exercise movement. How about doing laundry? Grabbing laundry from the washer—which is wet and heavy—and transferring it to the dryer requires a deadlift-like action with a lateral lunge. Training these movements in the safety of the gym will help senior clients gain strength where it is most needed.
The benefits of functional fitness are many:
Improved physical health
Healthy body composition
Strong immune system for fighting off illness
Reduced risk of falls and injuries
Better quality of life
Mental health benefits of functional training include the following:
Lower rates of depression
Functional exercise produces all the same physical benefits of regular exercise. An increase in physical activity increases metabolism. With a faster metabolism, clients can eat more healthful foods. Physical activity also burns calories, helping seniors lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.
Cardio exercise improves heart health and keeps blood vessels from getting stiff, maintaining a healthy range for blood pressure. Not only that, walking is a functional workout in that everyone must walk. Walking improves strength around the ankle, knee, and hip joints.
The mental health benefits of functional training include reduced depression, increased happiness, enhanced mental focus and memory, and improved cognitive function. Many seniors claim losing their independence is a major concern. Exercise builds and maintains muscle strength and endurance. By adding exercise to their daily routine, seniors can carry out their daily activities and remain independent.
A good workout boosts feel-good chemicals in the brain leading to feelings of happiness. The more exercise—fitness classes, cardio, circuit training, Silver Sneakers, etc.—the more feelings of happiness. Finally, research shows that exercise enhances mental focus and keeps the mind sharp. No more "senior moments" or forgetting where the car is parked.
Functional fitness should enhance balance, mobility, and strength. A good training program should include functional training without neglecting other aspects of fitness, such as muscular strength, muscular endurance, and cardiovascular endurance. In other words, don't focus on fixing just one thing at a time. For example, a client with a bum knee should be doing some balance and mobility training. They should also be doing upper body strength training and cardiovascular training to maintain good heart health. Throw in some flexibility exercises and you have a nicely balanced training program.
As a qualified personal trainer, you should be able to program resistance training exercises alongside functional fitness and cardio for compound benefits.
To help seniors improve balance, consider the following line-up of exercises:
You can do these with or without added weight. Modify the lunge to be more or less difficult by adding forward or lateral movements or using a chair for stability. Get creative and help clients have fun with exercise.
The best way to improve cardiovascular fitness—and help seniors with daily activities—is to get them moving more. According to the Sedentary Behaviour Research Network, adults over 60 are the least active age group and rack up more inactive time than any other group—regardless if they are working or retired.
To get seniors to move more, find activities they enjoy which are rhythmic in nature. Challenge them to move for at least 15 minutes per day and to increase their activity progressively. Some exercises include:
Resistance training strengthens the muscles, joints, and bones. It's especially important for women to include strength training to reduce the risk of osteoporosis. Group fitness training is an ideal setting for seniors to do resistance training. A good circuit training routine done with friends provides social support with structured guidance from the personal trainer.
Include the following functional exercise movements into senior fitness programs:
Flexibility naturally declines with age, but even more so when people aren't active. Muscles get tight, create muscular imbalances, and pull the joints out of alignment. This sets the stage for injury but is avoidable with a few minutes per day of stretching. Here are some good stretches to begin with:
Overhead side stretch
Supine knee to chest
Chronological age is just a number. Physiological age is what truly limits a person. How well the body ages depends upon how well it is cared for throughout a lifetime. Proper nutrition, hydration, movement, and rest are key to aging well. Therefore, senior fitness is just another way to say "personal fitness".
Each person the personal trainer works with—young, old, over-weight, differently-abled, etc.—deserves a personal fitness program. Each program should:
Address health issues
Improve overall health
Establish a sustainable, healthy lifestyle
That said, it's always nice to exercise with peers. Baby Boomers relate better to each other than they would to a Gen-Xer or Millennial. Here are a few ideas to get senior clients involved in physical activity:
Silver Sneakers is a popular group fitness class with more locations around the US than Starbucks (according to their website). They specialize in helping older adults get active and have coaches that specialize in age-related health issues.
Many personal trainers are certified in Senior Fitness and offer one-on-one personal training, small group training, and even boot camp workouts. Personal trainers with this certification can safely modify exercises for clients of different fitness levels. This is a great opportunity for seniors who need help to slowly get back into the swing of things.
Group fitness classes are another fun way for seniors to get moving. Aerobics, dance, step, yoga, circuit training, and water-based versions of these are available for seniors to get involved in. These classes are often very low cost and offered at recreation centers, local gyms, and retirement communities.
Helping senior clients improve their quality of life is a rewarding career for the right person. If you've ever considered working with seniors, check out our Specialist in Senior Fitness course. The aging population in the US is growing. Seniors need you to help them stay fit, active, and independent.
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