Most of us work out with a specific motivation in mind. Maybe you want to get back in shape, build more muscle or become a better runner. Improving your overall fitness is often just a nice byproduct. But what if training for real-life situations is your main reason for exercising?
Functional fitness is a term used for full-body workouts, during which you don’t train isolated muscle groups but move your body the way you use it in daily life. Instead of bench-pressing or jumping on the cross-trainer, you train your body to do everyday activities more easily and efficiently.
Functional fitness is also the word that best describes my view on exercising with chronic illness – namely focusing on those areas of fitness that improve your health and quality of life the most. Running on the treadmill obviously boosts your fitness, but it may not be the best choice if what you want most is to be able to carry your toddler or sit behind your desk without debilitating back pain.
You probably don’t live to exercise, but exercise to live a full life.
Why Functional Fitness Makes Everyday Life Easier
Unlike most workouts, functional fitness doesn’t just focus on building strength and endurance. It also develops other capabilities you need to function well: flexibility, stability, coordination, good posture. By doing exercises that mimic movements you do at work or around the house, functional fitness trains your muscles to work together instead of only training your biceps/thighs/spine.
The goal of functional fitness is to make it easier to perform daily activities and prevent injuries. So how do these exercises improve your daily life?
- Squats train the same muscles you need to stand up and sit down or pick things up from the floor.
- Lunges in all directions help you do household activities like vacuuming and gardening.
- Step-ups with light weights support your body to climb the stairs with a load of laundry or carry a heavy suitcase.
To get the best results, you should consult a physical therapist to create a functional fitness routine tailored to your personal situation. But if you’re (also) looking for ways to train for everyday life on your own, have a look at these ideas.
Ideas for Your Functional Fitness Sessions
There are more fitness programs out there than you could ever try. Most workout plans skip the first phase of getting from bedridden or housebound to being able to function normally. Too much progress is expected too soon to be realistic and sustainable for people with serious health problems.
So first, take a close look at your current physical condition. Is leaving your home a challenge because you have difficulties walking or standing? Or are you fit enough to lead a ‘normal’ life but you still need to catch your breath each time you climb the stairs?
Ask yourself: Which small improvement would make everyday life better?
- Would you like to be able to walk to the nearby shops or get back on your bicycle? Do you wish you could pick up your beloved game of tennis again? Then focus on gradually improving your endurance and fitness with brisk walks, low-impact aqua aerobics, a living room dance workout or interval training for more advanced fitness levels.
- Are you struggling to load your groceries in the car, carry a load of laundry up the stairs or pick up your (grand)child? Build your total-body strength by practicing squats and lunges, doing push-ups against the wall or simple exercises with resistance bands.
- Do you have trouble getting out of the car, bending down to pick things up or reaching overhead to take a dish out of the cupboard? Relax tight muscles, lessen your pain and improve your range of motion by increasing your flexibility. Rotate your joints every morning, try touching your toes or do flexibility exercises from yoga, Pilates or tai chi. Just make sure you do a short warm-up first and avoid bouncy stretches.
- Are you scared of stumbling or of your legs giving way? Prevent falls by improving your balance and coordination. Try walking backwards and sideways, get up from your chair without using your hands, stand on one foot or use a stability ball to train your balance.
Identify your biggest problem and start where you are now, even if that means only doing a 1-minute ‘workout’ a day.
And as always: please consult your treating physician or a licensed physical therapist for advice before starting a new workout routine.
How do you train for everyday life?
For more in-depth advice on how to rebuild your functional fitness after illness and injury, check out ‘How to Create Your Own Action Plan for Recovery’. You can also find more tips for exercising with chronic illness here: