The Many Benefits of Functional Fitness
Question: “I’ve read that ‘functional fitness activity’ can help maintain a healthy body weight and provide additional benefits as well. However, I am not sure what functional fitness is all about. Can you explain?”
“Functional fitness” activities relate more to a person’s lifestyle than what we consider to be formal, structured workouts. The term generally refers to behavior that burns calories, enhances health, improves physical status and serves a functional purpose above and beyond the exercise itself. For example, mowing the lawn with a push mower rather than a riding mower is practicing functional fitness. Taking the stairs rather than the elevator is practicing functional fitness. In both cases, you achieve the primary objective of the activity but also reap fitness and health benefits. Functional fitness activities might appear to have little impact on physical well-being but can have a significant effect on body weight, health and overall physical status over the long term.
Consider that one pound of body fat is equivalent to approximately 3500 calories of stored energy. In other words, for every pound of stored body fat, a person must have consumed roughly 3500 calories beyond what was required to fuel their basic bodily functions and physical activity. Accumulation of this “stored” energy can occur over a period of days, weeks, months or even years; it is a cumulative process with no set time frame. The typical outcome is slow and steady weight gain, commonly referred to as “creeping obesity.” Practicing functional fitness can play an important role in reversing the process.
Here’s how it works. We know that the human body is amazingly sensitive to imbalances of calories in and calories out. For example, consuming an average of only 60 calories (roughly the number of calories in a small chocolate chip cookie) per day beyond need adds up to about 1800 calories over the span of 30 days. This caloric excess will result in the deposition of approximately ½ pound of body fat. Most people will not notice the extra half-pound of fat added to their midsection every month, but the 6-pound weight gain by year’s end might catch their attention. Stretch that annual weight gain over a span of 5 years, and the once-slim 22-year-old has become an overweight 27-year-old and wonders how it happened. Practicing functional fitness can help to remedy the situation. Increase calorie burn by a mere 100 calories a day through functional fitness activity and a person can lose 10 pounds over the course of a year (assuming calorie intake remains about the same). Incorporating functional fitness into an already active lifestyle can be especially effective for shedding those “last few pounds,” often the most difficult to lose, and afterwards can help to maintain a healthy body weight.
The good news is that practicing functional fitness is both “simple and painless”: key words for long term success. There is no need to squeeze additional, time-consuming workouts into an already busy schedule. Simply analyze your normal everyday behaviors and substitute your own calorie-burning physical effort in situations where machines have previously been doing most of the work. Choose activities that you are physically able and emotionally willing to perform on a regular basis. Listed below are a few examples of functional fitness activities. There are many others that could possibly fit your lifestyle.
- Walk or ride a bike rather than travel by car (when it is safe)
- Walk up or down stairs instead of taking the elevator.
- Park at the far end of the mall lot to increase walking distance to the store.
- Cut your lawn with a push mower rather than riding mower.
- Wash your car by hand rather than the car wash.
- Trim bushes with hand-held rather than electric hedge clippers
- Split/chop cordwood yourself rather than purchase prepared wood.
- Shovel your driveway after a snowfall rather than use a snow blower.
- Rake up leaves rather than use a leaf blower.
Keep in mind that practicing functional fitness can provide benefits beyond mere weight loss. An overwhelming body of research evidence points to the fact that even a moderate amount of exercise performed on a regular basis can improve health and quality of life. By adopting a more active lifestyle, you can reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes and even some forms of cancer. It can also help to reduce stress, improve mental health and maintain healthy bones and joints. Last but certainly not least, regular physical activity has been shown to slow and even reverse many of the physical changes generally linked with aging. In short, practicing functional fitness when possible should be an integral part of every person’s life plan.