Functional Exercise as We Age: Maintaining Strength, Mobility and Independence

By on March 8, 2018
Functional Exercise as We Age: Maintaining Strength, Mobility and Independence

By Sabrena Jo, Senior Exercise Scientist for the American Council on Exercise (ACE) –

If there’s one general statement that can be made about getting older, it’s that we all journey through the decades in our own way. The process of aging varies widely and is affected by many factors, including personality, experiences, health and the natural responses to aging. As we age, we naturally lose some of the functionality we had in youth. Our eyesight may diminish, we may have a harder time hearing, and strength and mobility begins to decline. Although some reduction in muscle size and strength is a normal consequence of aging, the loss of muscle mass in older adults accelerates with physical inactivity.

Fortunately, age-related muscle loss can be minimized by resistance training, otherwise known as strength training.  Resistance training isn’t just for body builders and it doesn’t necessarily mean lifting heavy barbells. Building strength can come in a variety of forms, and finding the right way to build and maintain muscle mass can enhance your potential to maintain overall health, rebound from an illness or injury and maintain independence. Resistance training may also benefit bone-related disorders, such as osteoarthritis and osteoporosis.

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For arthritic joints, functional ability can be improved if the surrounding muscles and unaffected joints are stronger and can share the stress of the affected joint. Stronger muscles absorb more of the attendant pressure on a joint, thereby reducing stress on painful joint surfaces.

Osteoporosis, which is characterized by fragile bones, may be improved through resistance training, which slows bone loss and increases bone mineral density. Further, training-induced improvements in muscular strength and balance may prevent falls that cause fractures among those with osteoporosis.

Improved muscle strength may also improve other indicators of good health, like a reduced heart rate and lower blood pressure responses during physical exertion. This means that strength training may decrease stress on the heart during daily activities like carrying groceries or lifting heavy objects. In a nutshell, participating in regular resistance exercise allows us to maintain appropriate levels of muscular fitness and improve daily function.                 

Functional Training

An excellent way to approach a resistance-exercise program is to begin with functional training. Exercise that is functional entails any movement performed with the intention of enhancing the way we move, whether in sports, fitness, occupation or activities of daily living. These movements require the muscles to work together while simultaneously stabilizing the joints. Combined with regular stretching, resistance training keeps joints flexible, which makes it easier to move with comfort and ease.

An example of an exercise  program that develops functional strength and range of motion in the joints is a routine that incorporates movements like squats, lunges , multidirectional reaches and overhead presses.  

Squatting and lunging are essential movements as these tasks are required to stand up from a chair or stoop down to pick up a pair of shoes. Multidirectional reaches (i.e., reaching one or both arms in front of, to the side of, or behind the body) are important for maintaining balance and posture, which can help reduce the risk of falling during daily activities. Additionally, exercises that involve lifting the arms overhead help maintain upper body strength which can decline with age, making tasks such as putting away groceries on a top shelf a substantial effort.

Staying active is one of the best ways to ensure ease of movement throughout the decades so that you can continue to enjoy all the benefits that go along with being strong, flexible and pain free.

Stretching for Posture

The National Senior Games created this video on stretching for posture to demonstrate how these stretches can help improve every day movements.

To learn more about functional movement exercises, workout tips, or to find a personal trainer that can help assess your individual needs, visit

Sabrena Jo, M.S., has been actively involved in the fitness industry since 1987. As a certified group fitness instructor, personal trainer, and health coach, she has taught group exercise and owned her own personal-training and health-coaching businesses.  Jo is the Senior Exercise Scientist for the American Council on Exercise (ACE) and a relentless pursuer of finding ways to help people start and stick with physical activity.


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Functional Exercise as We Age: Maintaining Strength, Mobility and Independence