Skip straight to the 5 best functional exercises for seniors
Last updated June 2023
What do we mean by functional exercise?
The term "functional exercise" is a bit of an industry buzzword.
The idea of doing "functional exercises" gets banded around a lot these days but often, people don't really know what the term actually means.
I won't beat around bush here - this is my definition of functional exercise:
A functional exercise is any exercise that ultimately helps us complete the most common day to day movements or tasks. Functional exercises mimic our most common movement patterns and allows us to grow stronger in them.
So, what are the most common movement patterns we do on a day to day basis?
How many times a day do you sit down and stand up? Probably quite a lot. And even if you are currently very sedentary, I'd be willing to bet that sitting down and standing up is still one of the most common movements you do everyday.
So it's logical to find an exercise that best mimics the sitting down and standing up movement pattern. Once we have identified the exercise, we can practise it regularly and do things to make the exercise more challenging.
For example, performing the exercise whilst holding weights so that we get stronger doing it over time. Or, repeating the movement on a regular basis over and over again.
And it really is as simple as that.
Identify our most common movement patterns, pick an exercise that mimics it, and practise getting better at it.
From my experience, the meaning of functional exercise can get a bit blurred when it is confused with athletics. Lots of people confuse athletic ability, such as agility and plyometrics (jumping), with functional exercise.
Both exercise types have huge merit. But for older adults and seniors, just staying strong in our most common movement patterns is a sensible goal.
Why are functional exercises for seniors so important?
OK, so now we have a clear understanding of what a functional exercise actually is, we can talk about why there are so incredibly important, particularly for seniors.
It's a fact of life that humans get weaker and slow down with age. That's the natural lifecycle that we all go through.
Our muscles begin a natural decline around the 4th decade of life. It is a very gradual process to start with but does accelerate with age. That acceleration becomes much more pronounced in the 8th and 9th decade of life.
This means that progressive resistance training in our 60's and 70's is of paramount importance. It is much harder to grow muscle mass and strength rather than preserve it.
The great news is, we can significantly slow that process down. And I do mean significantly.
A huge societal problem is that most people just don't know how best to do that. It's incredible that the optimal methods of staying strong and healthy with age are so unknown. There is just so much noise out there, the best methods are hard to find.
I'll walk you through a few of them them right now -
- Resistance training
Functional exercises all come under the umbrella of resistance training. Resistance training is also referred to as weight training or weight lifting. Without incorporating some form of progressive resistance, you simply won't get stronger.
The Wise Fitness Academy promotes resistance training above and beyond all other exercise types. Resistance training for older adults and seniors is king and there is no getting around it.
It's truly incredible, in a negative way, just how few older adults and seniors regularly and progressively resistance train. If resistance training could be prescribed in a pill form, it would completely transform the ageing population as we see it today.
In short, resistance training is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, drivers of improved health for older adults and seniors. Taking our most common everyday movements, and progressively becoming stronger when doing them, is the key to better longevity.
- Protein intake
Protein is 1 of the 3 macronutrients that provides us with energy and it has a host vital roles within the body.
One of these roles is to repair muscle mass. Without adequate protein, our bodies cannot effectively recover. If this happens over a longer period of time, then muscle mass and strength will decrease.
Ideally protein intake should be distributed across the day with a minimum of 3 spaced out feedings, each one containing 25 grams + of protein.
I would suggest simply having enough protein at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Protein intake really is critically important, and again, it's unbelievable that so few people really understand just how important it is. I have written a comprehensive article of protein which you can read by clicking here.
Walking is vastly underestimated in terms of its importance for staying health into older age. And what movement is more functional than walking? It's how humans get from point A to point B. It certainly makes sense to be good at walking as we age.
Often people assume that exercise always has to be rigorous and challenging, and whilst at least some of our exercise should be, not all of it has to be.
Even gentle movement such as walking is incredibly beneficial to health and staying independent. And you don't need to be walking a marathon everyday. Just start and gently progress over time.
You can read my comprehensive article on the benefits of walking and how you can incorporate into your life by clicking here
- Weight management
Maintaining a healthy weight is a key driver for better health, especially into older age.
There are so many ailments associated with being overweight there's simply no getting around it.
If you are currently overweight, then embarking on a fat loss journey might just be the most important thing to focus on. (and guess what - resistance training, protein intake and walking will be critical components of successful weight loss).
Unfortunately, because fat loss is such a commonly desired goal and millions of people want to lose weight, it means there is a lot of misinformation out there. Add in the meteoric rise of social media and have an epidemic of grifters, charlatans and con artists who are selling fads and gimmicks to make a quick buck.
Fortunately for you, you are here and have found the Wise Fitness Academy where evidence based information is everything. There are no fads or gimmicks here. Just trustworthy information.
This article is the last article you will ever need to read regarding fat loss.
This is obviously a pretty broad category and I have written lots about diet and nutrition in other articles. To keep it very simple I am just going to list some of the more important elements of diet that should be addressed:
- Fruit and veg
- Whole grains
Anyway, I digress. Lets get back onto functional exercises.
Can functional exercises for seniors be done at home?
The 5 exercises I demonstrate in the videos below can all be done at home or in a gym. I will also share methods of adding in progression to each exercise over time. Don't forget, progressive overload is key.
Sometimes, specific equipment can be helpful for certain exercises but for the most part, it's perfectly possible to use everyday objects around the house.
I will add links for equipment I recommend if you would like to go ahead and purchase it.
How many reps sets and sessions of functional exercises are needed?
How many reps and sets of each exercise you do is really important.
I've already mentioned the principle of progressive overload a few times in this article. Progressive overload is a gentle increasing of difficulty over time.
Let's say you pick 3 core functional exercises that you want to get better at over time. You should commit to 2 to 3 exercise sessions per week where you perform the 3 chosen exercises. During each exercise session, you should do a certain amount of sets and reps of the given exercise.
Week on week, you can make the chosen exercises a little harder (progressive overload). This can be done by
- Adding more reps
- Adding more sets
- Adding weight
- Slowing each rep down
- Increasing the range of motion of each exercise
There are lots of other ways to add in progression. It's not particularly complicated either. You just need to find a way to make it little harder for yourself.
I recommend doing:
- 2 to 3 exercise sessions per week
- 2 to 4 sets of each chosen exercise per session
- 8-12 reps of each chosen exercise per set
Take a look at this example programme card I created for one of my Get Stronger programme members.
The Get Stronger programme is a free workout programme designed for older adults and seniors. I also offer a paid option whereby you can get personalised support from me.
You click here to read more about it
Fully body functional workout example.
For this exercise, I would advise placing the step next to a wall so that you can use it for better balance. Using the first (or second) step if you have a stair case in your house works well as you can use the bannister rail for added support.
If you can't see the video then click here to view it on YouTub
Incline push ups
If you can't see the video then click here to view it on YouTube
If you can't see the video then click here to view it on Y0uTube.
Functional exercises for seniors are a critical part of healthy ageing and cannot be overlooked. They should take the form of resistance based exercises to help retain strength and mobility in our everyday movements.
All exercises types should be done on a regular basis and incorporate progression overtime. A structured workout programme is the best way to accomplish this.
Get access to the Get Stronger Programme to start your journey today.