Did this kind of typical incident ever happen to you?
You are in Washington, D.C., and you need to get to the airport. Your son-in-law drops you off at the Metro. You discover that the down escalator—yes, the looong one that descends deep into the bowels of DC—is not working. Luckily, you packed light and your purse converts into a backpack. With suitcase in one hand and the other on the railing, you descend, one step at a time. Halfway down, you transfer the suitcase to the other hand. Whew! You made it! You pull up on your suitcase’s retractable handle, roll toward the Metro stop, and soon you are on board.
You arrive at the airport, but your gate is at the far end of the terminal, about a quarter mile. You walk briskly, pulling your suitcase along beside you. At the TSA checkpoint, you unpack, sort your stuff into bins, and re-pack. You board the plane. You carefully lift your suitcase into the overhead compartment, thankful that it’s light and compact, so that you don’t bonk anyone on the head with it. Then you have a seat and take out your book—a well-earned reward.
Actually, “you” is a thinly disguised version of “me” on a recent trip to Washington, DC. Here is what I said to myself after the above incident: “Saving $20-25 by taking the Metro instead of a cab…Good! Navigating successfully through unexpected obstacles…Excellent! Knowing I am fit enough to visit my new granddaughter on a regular basis. Priceless!”
I was grateful and pleased that my program of regular, moderate exercise had paid off. Had I been less fit, I might have had fits when I discovered that the escalator was out. (Besides exercise, I must also give credit to luck and to modern suitcase technology.)
Of All the Good Reasons to Exercise, This is the Best
You no doubt know at least some of the following famous benefits of regular exercise (Warning! Get ready for a really long list!): heart health; longevity; mood uplift; weight loss or maintenance; higher energy levels; better sleep; delayed onset of dementia; better brain health; reduced blood pressure; amped-up immune system; strong bones; reduced body fat; stronger muscles; stronger lung muscles for better breathing; reduced risk of arthritis; less anxiety and stress; sharper thinking skills; and even a better sex life. As the saying goes, if exercise could be put into a pill, everyone would want a prescription.
Important as the above reasons are, there’s one reason that tops them all—a reason that is rarely mentioned in articles about the benefits of exercise. This overlooked benefit is: The ability to meet the demands, expected and unexpected, of everyday life because you have achieved a basic fitness level.
This ability is sometimes called “functional fitness.” Your functional fitness will be different from someone else’s, because each of you faces different physical demands. In general, you might want to be fit in order to master some of these challenges and pleasures of daily life:
If you are conditioned enough to handle most daily activities with relative ease and without harming yourself, you are in shape for living. Becoming a ninja warrior is not required.
Exercise DVD instructor Ellen Barrett proclaims that, “Being functionally fit is more important than being cosmetically beautiful.” I love hearing this message when I exercise to one of her DVDs. And I would add that functional fitness is even more important as we age. What good is longevity if you aren’t fit enough for fun?
But how do you get “functionally fit?”
For most people, regular aerobic exercise, like walking, and weight training with light weights will suffice to keep you functionally fit. If you need more specific instructions about how to move, there are functional fitness classes that focus specifically on training the muscles that you would use in everyday life.
A physical therapist can help you tweak the way you move to prevent aches and pains as well as ward off serious injuries like throwing out your back. For example, a wonderful physical therapist helped me get in the habit of supporting my arms on chair arms to prevent and relieve shoulder and neck pain. Likewise, learning to tense my ab and arm muscles before I lift a heavy object has strengthened my core and probably held off a host of back problems.
I’ve never taken an exercise class that focuses specifically on functional fitness. I do, however, walk 4-5 times a week and/or exercise with light weights to a rotation of DVDs and videos, especially in winter. My video instructors give me constant posture reminders and directions about what form to use. These hints have sunk into my brain and become habits. Thank you, Jane Fonda, Ellen Barrett, Rodney Yee, and many others!
All in all, developing some “muscle mindfulness” will go a long way toward keeping you functionally fit. Preventing injury, finding joy in everyday movement, and living pain-free for as long as possible are worthy goals that should be highlighted more often…not to mention the ability to travel to see the ones you love!
© Meg Selig, 2015
If you enjoyed this blog, you might like these:
19 Reasons to Exercise: by Susan Krause Whitbourne
The Best Brain Food May Not Be a Food, by Meg Selig
For more on functional fitness, see this Mayo Clinic article.