Related Functional Fitness: the Sooner, the Better

by James Owen

As a 78-year-old man who found my path to fitness just seven years ago, I’ve got a message for every American: We all get older, but we don’t have to get old. The good news is you can keep living your life and doing the things you enjoy if you know how to be functionally fit. And if you’re 20-, 30-, or 40-something? The same message applies—but with one big difference. You’ve got the next 20 or 30 years to work at getting and staying functionally fit, rather than trying to counteract decades of couch-potato living in a matter of months, like I did.         

Functional fitness is a straightforward concept, but one I only discovered late in life. It means training your body for the activities of daily life, rather than trying to improve how fast you can run a mile or how good you look in a bathing suit. It’s about being able to handle everyday movements with ease, and without pain or risk of injury. The way to do that is by working on all five dimensions of fitness: core strength and stability, flexibility, balance, muscular strength, and cardiovascular endurance.

Being physically equipped for your day-to-day activities may not sound like a big deal right now. When you’re 30 or 40, you can take your body’s strength and suppleness for granted. But trust me, it doesn’t stay that way. Consider, too, that you don’t have to be an AARP member to start noticing some effects of age. Our bodies typically begin losing lean muscle mass and strength sometime in our thirties; that’s one reason the average American gains a pound a year, every year, after about age 25. Then there’s our ability to balance, which typically peaks in our twenties and gradually spirals downward from then on.

Functional fitness isn’t a new idea; physical therapists and a subset of athletic coaches and physical trainers have understood it for years. But training that’s “well-rounded” and “balanced” doesn’t generate the same media buzz as “five moves to make your body bikini-ready.” As a result, many people across all age groups still come at fitness from a relatively narrow perspective. Some are convinced all they need is cardio machines, or a spin class, or a daily run. Others, mostly men, go in for old-school bodybuilding, ignoring how often they get hurt. Still others, often women, swear by yoga and never go near a dumbbell. The hoary notion that strength is “unfeminine” has had surprising staying power.

Don’t get me wrong—any kind of physical activity is a good thing. But one-dimensional approaches may not be sustainable over the long haul, and they certainly aren’t enough to keep you young.

On a positive note, functional fitness seems to be catching on with this younger generation. Compared with the baby boomers I know, millennials strike me as much more intent on balancing intense career work with vigorous, varied physical workouts, no matter how early they have to get up to do it. A lot of young guys seem smart about strength-training, too, focusing on whole-body movements, endurance, and agility work rather than showing off with heavy weights. I’ve also been impressed by how many young women put into practice the belief that “strong is beautiful.”

Do I wish I’d started working out more seriously and sensibly at their age? Of course I do, but there are no do-overs for the last 40 years. I’m just glad I got there eventually and I’m inspired by the upcoming generation’s growing effort to educate and prioritize health and wellness. We can all rest a little easier knowing those that the proceeding age groups have the chance to do better, stay healthier, and learn from their elders’ mistakes.