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By Stephenie Karony

Wednesday, September 27, 2000

Functionally fit:
Prepared for life’s tasks

Question: I've been hearing the term functional fitness around the gym lately.

Please explain what this term means exactly.

Answer: Functional fitness is achieved when an exercise program not only reinforces one's ability to be good at a particular sport or exercise, but also supports the functioning of the body in one's everyday life as a whole. Functional strength is part of being fit. Having functional strength means the muscular system is capable of doing a range of everyday tasks safely and effectively.

A functional fitness exercise program includes exercise modalities that train the heart, muscles and joints in ways that improve daily life, such as lifting (a child), pulling (the trash bin to the curb), pushing (a lawn mower or vacuum), reaching (for something on a high shelf), turning (a jar lid), bending (putting something heavy down), running (to catch a bus), etc. Functional fitness programs should be designed to enhance specific muscular movements and skills needed for essential tasks such as driving, sitting, gardening, standing, walking, climbing etc. They should also be based on an individual's needs and limitations.

Functional fitness programs include techniques that match the speed, the range of motion, the degree of resistance and the movement patterns that you would use in your life outside the gym.

For example, someone training to play volleyball might do plyometric exercises because this training technique enhances speed and power, as well as strength. To take a very different example, if you do 50 biceps curls with a 3-pound weight, you're training your arms to pick up something that weighs 3 pounds. But if you want to be able to pick up a 15- or 20-pound bag of dog food safely, then at some point you must do biceps curls with a much heavier weight.

If you're an individual with osteoporosis, you must lift weights that are heavy enough to activate muscle and bone growth. On the other hand, if it's your goal to lose 20 pounds and walking is your preferred aerobic exercise, then you must walk at a speed that allows your body to start burning fat.

To achieve weight loss, you cannot spend your time strolling.

The focus of a functionally fit person is the performance of the body as a whole, conditioned for real-life activities, not just conditioned for isolated muscle strength. Don't get me wrong - individual muscle strength is very useful, especially when rehabilitating atrophied muscles after injury, or when training opposing muscle groups that are out of balance with each other. Body builders and weightlifting competitors must train muscles in isolation, but their goals are usually to win contests and competitions, not to be functionally fit. Bottom line: isolated muscle strength is not an indicator of what a person can do safely and effectively in real life .

Let's look at a real-life example. The construction worker who is also a champion arm wrestler spends his free time training the muscles that reinforce arm wrestling. As a result, he's very good at arm wrestling, and he has the arm strength to pick up heavy objects, vital for construction workers. What he doesn't have is the strength and flexibility in his low back and abdominal muscles (trunk stabilizers), to prevent the kind of back injury so prevalent in his line of work. His exercise routine should include a variety of exercises that target the abdominal and low back muscles and the hip flexors and extensors, as well as his shoulders, chest , back and legs.

Functionally fit people train for life.

Health Events

Stephenie Karony is a certified health
and fitness instructor, a personal trainer and the author of
"Body Shaping with Free Weights." Send questions to her at
P.O. Box 262, Wailuku Hi. Her column appears on Wednesdays.

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