You exercise regularly; you’re at the top of your running game; and you can still piggy-back your 10-year-old up to bed the way you did when he was three. It feels great…. doesn’t it?! So how is it that a little window washing or pruning of the pear tree in the backyard has left you so stiff and sore?
It could be that while you’re getting plenty of physical activity, you’re not attending to your functional fitness needs. Functional fitness is about exercising to build muscle strength and coordination while simulating and enabling the tasks of everyday living – such as activities you perform at home, work, or while participating in activities and sports you enjoy (like baseball, curling or dancing).
It’s very possible to have super cardiovascular endurance and to be strong and toned but to be ill-prepared for activities like painting a room, making a bed, shifting light furniture, or hoisting your preschooler out of her car seat.
Weight training for example, enables us to isolate a specific muscle group – but it doesn’t teach this same muscle group to work with others. Functional fitness training encourages muscles to work cooperatively – to be “friends”.
If for example, you’re constantly picking up items of the floor (say in your preschooler’s bedroom or at work), you need to use muscles in both your upper and lower body to do so. A squat to bicep curl would be one exercise that mimics the movement required to complete this everyday task while training the required muscle groups to work together. Other common functional fitness combinations include multidirectional lunges and step-ups with weights.
We’ve all known someone who injured their lower back while making a bed or who strained the muscles in their shoulder, neck and/or upper back while pruning a tree – it’s happened to most of us and I’m no exception. I can recall one lunch with friends where I couldn’t turn my head to face a friend on one side of me because my neck was so stiff and sore from gardening. I marveled and joked with my friends a little, that I could run for hours but that a little ‘garden work,’ could cause such discomfort.
If you’d like to improve your functional fitness, most experts suggest avoiding weights altogether, at least initially. Instead, start with teaching your body to control and balance its own weight while performing simple movement like a one-legged squat. Once you can control and balance your own weight, you can safely begin adding light weights while performing the same exercises – but it’s usually best to get some advice from a trainer, physiotherapist, or health professional who can evaluate your needs, identify the most appropriate exercises for you, and teach you to perform them properly. Items such as stability balls, light hand weights, kettle bells and a wobble board may factor into your routine.