Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

Health & Wellness

The Medicine Cabinet: Ask the Harvard Experts: Functional fitness: a goal for active daily life

From  / 
Q: I am in my early 60s and want to stay active. A friend was talking about functional fitness as a good goal for older people.

What does that include?

A: Becoming functionally fit means you are able to keep doing desired physical activities as you age. Programs to enhance functional fitness have become very popular with baby boomers.

During our later years, we are likely to experience many changes in physical health that affect our daily function. We tend to lose muscle mass and strength, and muscles become stiff and less flexible. Our sense of balance weakens leading to an increased risk of falls. The desire to walk and engage in other exercise often diminishes.

To offset these changes that can decrease your ability to get through the day, you can take a preventive approach to protect and even increase your functional fitness.

A typical functional fitness program will include exercises that mimic daily activities, with motions that help your body get better at pushing, pulling, climbing, bending, lifting, reaching, turning, squatting, and rotating your trunk or shoulders. The exercises are designed to train your muscles to work together.

Endurance is also an important part of functional fitness. So, you should also include aerobic exercise -- the kind that gets your heart and lungs pumping, such as brisk walking and indoor cycling.

You can find functional fitness classes at YMCAs, many gyms, and local senior centers. Choose classes that are adapted for older adults, and that the focus on exercises related to everyday physical activities. You might even try a beginner's yoga class or modified Pilates, which are geared toward balance and function.

You can also do functional fitness exercises at home several days per week. A typical home program should include:

-- flexibility stretches, such as reaching your arms overhead, turning your trunk to the right and left, and stretching the leg muscles

-- exercises that work several muscle groups at once to simulate everyday activities, such as sit-to-stands and wall squats

-- strengthening exercises for your legs and arms that can be done with resistance bands

-- strengthening exercises for your core (abdominal and back) muscles, such as wall push-ups or modified planks

-- balance exercises, such as standing on one leg for 30 seconds or longer (make sure you have something to hold on to in case you feel like you might fall)

The particular method you use to stay functionally fit is not as important as the result: being able to perform the activities you need and want to do.

(Howard LeWine, M.D., is an internist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. For additional consumer health information, please visit

Read More In Health & Wellness

How do you feel about getting old?

Take Our #FOGO QUIZ to Find Out

Start the Quiz →