Supporting Independence in Seniors through Functional Exercise

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By Katherine Gotthardt

The term functional exercise isn’t particularly mainstream, but the idea is. If you’ve ever had to have physical therapy, you’ve done functional exercises.

That’s where the concept originated from – the rehabilitation model in which therapists incorporate activities specific to the needs of the patient. Goals are set, and as they are reached, new and higher goals are developed. Functional exercises focus on building a body capable of accomplishing real-life activities in real-life positions, not just lifting a certain amount of weight in an idealized posture created by a machine at a gym.

While not a new idea, it’s one that has become increasingly popular, especially for seniors who can benefit from functional exercise programs designed to combat the challenges of aging. Here’s why.

As we age, we lose flexibility, balance and mobility. A sedentary life exacerbates these conditions, some of which are avoidable with exercise. It’s a downward spiral from there: The increase of pain and immobility encourages inactivity, which worsens the condition. Functional exercise programs for seniors aim to reverse this pattern.

Functional exercise routines tend to be simple and pragmatic. In group sessions certified trainers or instructors lead, many of the exercises can be performed in chairs. Participants use light bands, one- to three-pound dumbbells, balls and/or foam pads, among other basic, lightweight equipment. Resistance is added by tightening the bands, increasing weight and/or shifting position. Everyday stretching movements are also important parts of any good functional exercise program.

Studies show that staying active with functional exercises – those designed to improve the strength, flexibility and mobility needed for day-to-day activities – can significantly improve quality of life for seniors.

In a study published by the American Journal of Health Promotion, elderly participants who were unable to perform certain daily activities on their own showed significant improvements in functional mobility after participating in a 16- week functional resistance training program.

Functional exercise has also been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes. These exercises can increase cognitive ability and support emotional well-being as well. And, most importantly for seniors, functional exercise can decrease the likelihood of falls.

While functional exercise can be helpful, it’s important to seek medical advice before engaging in any exercise program. Decide with a doctor if functional exercise is a good fit. If it is, request information on qualified trainers who specialize in working with seniors. Doing so could support longer, healthier, more independent living.

Katherine Gotthardt is a full-time local writer, as well as Editor in Chief of Prince William Living. She serves as president of Write by the Rails, the Prince William Chapter of the Virginia Writers Club. Katherine can be reached at kgotthardt@


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