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You’re fit, but are you functionally fit?

Jun 29, 2015
written by: Catherine Cameron
written by: Catherine Cameron
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You can run 5 KM in a respectable time, you play tennis and strength train three times a week, and you can still climb trees with your kids the way you did when you were 10. Only this past weekend, after washing windows and tidying your toddler’s room, you found yourself stiff, achy, and with a shoulder so sore, you paid a visit to the doctor.

If this sounds familiar, it could be that while you’re getting plenty of exercise, you’re not functionally fit.  Functional fitness is about exercising to build muscle strength and coordination to enable the tasks of everyday living – such as those you might perform at work or home (i.e. lifting and stacking boxes, pushing the lawn mower, or bending down to pick up items off your toddler’s floor).

According to Andrew Barr, Exercise Physiologist and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist at Deer Fields Clinic in Toronto, “any strength training exercise will provide benefits to whichever muscles are engaged in that exercise, but some exercises are better than others at translating to real life activities while offering a real functional benefit. For example, a walking lunge is superior to a seated hamstring curl as it trains muscle groups across multiple joints, and develops balance and coordination concurrently with strength”.

Though many people have terrific endurance when it comes to running or swimming, and they may be strong and toned, a surprising number will succumb to injury upon tackling an everyday activity like making a bed, shifting furniture, or hoisting a preschooler out of their car seat. When my kids were little ones and growing fast, it was this very activity that left my back and shoulders sore for months. I simply didn’t have the functional fitness required for this daily and repetitive task.

If you’d like to improve your functional fitness, most experts suggest avoiding weights initially. Instead, they suggest teaching your body to control and balance its own weight while performing simple movements like a one-legged squat. I typically encourage those looking to improve their functional fitness, to consult with a physiotherapist or personal trainer.  Andrew agrees. “If you’re investing time to develop your body through training, you want to ensure your effort and plan supports your goals. Too often, exercisers with a primary goal of enhancing sport performance, follow a body-building style training program that offers limited benefit. Work with a qualified practitioner to ensure your training routine will enhance your ability to participate in the everyday activities you enjoy,” he advises

A lack of functional fitness is nothing to be ashamed of and identifying and addressing your personal needs can free you from pain. Happily, most people will begin to experience relief and/or gains in functional fitness within a very short period… typically just a few weeks. For more on functional fitness, have a look at this feature from the Mayo Clinic.

In good health,

Catherine