Sunday, June 9, 2013

Why functional fitness is critical as we age

Mom wants to stay independent.
Several weeks ago the house shook. My first thought was that a transformer had blown up. It didn’t sound like a tree limb or a gun shot. I wondered if my 74-year-old mother had fallen. Because she weighs 100 more pounds than I do, there was no way I was going to be able to pull her off the floor.

As Mom squirmed like a little baby, it made me realize that she has lost more of the functional fitness in her legs and core than I had realized. I knew she had trouble getting out of a chair and tended to be a coach potato, but it never occurred to me that she wouldn’t be able to get off the floor. I had tried to get her to exercise before, but she has a vestibular problem that makes it challenging for her to stay active.

Fortunately, it finally dawned on me to get out an aerobic step so Mom could put her knees on to make it easier for her to pull and wiggle herself up on her bed. I’m not sure what she would have done if I hadn’t been there. Because my mother has always taken pride in being highly self-sufficient her inability to get off the floor was extremely disheartening.

You may think neither you nor your loved ones will ever lose the ability to get off the floor, even if you don’t exercise, but it happens to inactive seniors all the time. Even worse, seniors sometimes must rely on walkers or may become bedridden, not because of illness or injury but because of muscle disuse. Even more alarming, muscle weakness is a major risk factor for falling.

I tell you this story as an illustration of the importance of functional fitness. Simply put, functional fitness is the physical ability to do what we need to do to live our lives. If we can lift 20 pounds but we can’t climb a flight of steps without great difficulty, we may have arm strength but we’re not really functionally fit. We lose functional fitness when we are inactive and don’t regularly challenge all our muscles, including our heart and breathing muscles, our core and our legs - not just our biceps and triceps.

Anyone who has had a bone break or other injury that required a period of not using their muscles can attest to how fast muscles can lose their strength and flexibility, if not challenged. Astronauts come back from space weaker and have to build back their strength because during spaceflight their muscles aren’t challenged by gravity. The exercises they do during the flight only do so much good.

Your current physical limitations may be minor, such as not being able to turn your head as far back over your shoulder as you once could. Or they may affect you a bit more, such as not be able to carry as many grocery bags or easily reach to change a light bulb. Maybe you can’t dance as gracefully as you once could. Maybe you’re prone to neck or back spasms. All these things may seem of limited consequence, but why should we accept them when we could avoid them by doing a little exercise.

Like many people I knew nothing about functional fitness for most of my life. We hear that we need to exercise to keep our weight at a healthy level and avoid or lessen chronic illnesses like cardiovascular disease and diabetes. But we don’t really hear about how exercise can work magic when it comes to retaining and even improving our physical abilities. Our biological age can be much younger than our chronological age with a little exercise.

Four years ago I was seriously overweight and began a healthy weight loss program, which included not only a balanced diet but walking 10,000 steps a day. I wasn’t thinking fitness. I was thinking getting rid of some fat. But the most immediate effect of the program was the improvement of my cardiovascular health. I didn’t get winded as fast. Plus my legs felt stronger, and even my core strength improved. I became physical capable of more.

Later when I added yoga to my routine I gained some strength and range of motion. I could turn my head back farther over my shoulder. My lower back became stronger and I quit suffering from those occasional lower back spasms. During this fitness journey I decided to become a certified personal trainer, and as I began reading about functional fitness I incorporated strength training into my workouts. Soon I was able to carry in many more grocery bags at one time. After adding Zumba, a Latin dance aerobics, I have become more agile, coordinated and my balance has improved. My core feels as strong as after I had taken ballet for years in high school.

All this increase in functional fitness was been a shocker to me. I had no idea when I started my fitness journey how much my functional fitness would increase. When I was 49, I felt 99. Now I’m 53 feel as spry as when I was 33.

Although I had tried to encourage Mom do some leg and core exercises periodically before, she never would. I didn’t nag her of course because that is counterproductive, but I did pray. Fortunately after my mother’s fall she reconsidered her policy on exercise. She began to do leg squats and some other exercises with me. We started slow, but now she’s building up her legs and core nicely. We’ve now even begun working on her posture and arm strength as well. Mom has become a true believer. “I thought working out was just about looking better, which I'm not worried about. I didn’t realize exercise is really about being able to function!” my mom says.