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Charleston Trainer Uses Functional Exercise To Help Seniors Avoid Falls

Earlier this week there was an excellent article in the local Post & Courier newspaper written by David Quick entitled “Preventing Falls Becomes Tantamount As Baby Boomers Move Into Senior Years.”

The premise of the article was revealing one of the primary benefits of exercise for older adults…avoiding those accidental slips and falls. this content has been drawn and affirmed by slip-and-fall attorneys.

While there are numerous ways for older adults to exercise, all of them being beneficial, there is a specific type of exercise which we regularly use in our personal training programs here at Shaping Concepts which may arguably be the most effective.

It’s called “functional exercise” and as the name implies it involves doing movements that mimic every day life activities, hence the word functional.

More after the jump…

For this article I sat down with Colleen Castiglione, our senior exercise specialist here at Shaping Concepts. Colleen is a certified personal trainer on our staff with over twenty years experience. She’s our resident expert on senior fitness and does a remarkable job with our older clientele.

I wanted to pick her brain on just exactly how she uses functional exercise in her programming and what’s she found to be most helpful.

What stood out to me during our discussion was her emphasis on the word “mobility.” While movement is something often taken for granted when we’re younger, ask an older adult in what ways would they like exercise to improve their life and better movement will likely be at the top of the list.

You see you don’t think much about putting on your socks for example, that is until the day you have to start sitting down to do it.

The examples are numerous. While some are quick to write off such things as a part of “growing old,” the degree to which one is physically active will have a lot to do with how mobile (and therefore how independent and active) one is.

So what is it about this “functional exercise” that makes it so different?

Instead of being about utilizing a certain type of equipment or performing a specific exercise modality, functional exercise is all about doing activities which help you move naturally.

For the past 20-30 years the health club industry has been moving towards having more seated exercise equipment and less free weights and traditional fitness equipment.

While I’m sure there are several reasons for this, it’s always annoyed me when I hear a pitch from health club marketers or equipment manufacturers about how seated exercise equipment is better and safer for older populations.


Now granted, I’m not saying these machines lack benefit from a strength training standpoint, but they’re definitely not optimal from a mobility standpoint.

And it doesn’t take an expert in exercise science to figure out why.

The exerciser is SITTING DOWN in the machine while they do the movement. So how does this correlate to improving their every day activities?

While building muscular strength is certainly a valuable component, there’s a very important piece of the puzzle missing.

That piece of the puzzle is called proprioception.

What in the world is proprioception?

That’s just the fancy word used to describe an awareness of space. It’s at play with any movement done on your feet. You see there’s more to avoiding slips and falls than just balance or muscular strength as we know it.

As we get older yes reaction times get slower and overall strength decreases, but the real underlying problem causing slips and falls lies with a lack of proprioception.

Here’s an example.

You step out of your car onto an icy sidewalk and feel yourself start to go down. At that moment you’ve got numerous muscles and nerves all communicating and firing together in a blink of any eye to provide stabilization.

The better your proprioception, the less likely you are to take the fall.

This sense of awareness of space is something that doesn’t happen consciously, it’s totally an automatic response of the central nervous system. In other words it happens naturally without you thinking about it.

You see functional exercise helps with proprioception because it works not only to increase muscular strength and flexibility, but it does so in a way that mimics natural human movement.

Regardless of age, there are only so many ways the human body moves, only the intensity of the movements change. As we get older we don’t acquire totally new ways to move, we simply compensate or adjust the movements to our capabilities.

Think about the following…if you’re up on two legs regardless of age, you’re going to be performing some variation of a squat movement. Getting up out of a chair is a form of a squat.

Doesn’t it make sense that if a movement like a squat is such a big part of our every day activities that we’d want to train that movement in some way with our exercise?

Sounds like common sense, but you’d be amazed at how many older adults have told me that “so and so” recommended they should do the seated leg extension machine instead of squats.

Somehow sitting down to exercise is more effective than replicating something you’ll actually do later with your every day activities?

Seems to me the squat would best help one “squat” and not an exercise done while sitting on your rear. But hey that’s just me.

Somebody might say, we’ll that may be true but I can’t do weighted squats.

Ok, and if that’s the case you modify the squat movement so that you can do it. Maybe that means doing body weight squats, or perhaps even holding onto a strap or rope while you do it.

This is where the professional guidance of a knowledgeable fitness trainer can really help. Someone who can assist with providing you with the most effective exercises for your unique needs.

In short, preventing slips and falls for older adults comes down to staying physically active with the 5 pillars of human movement.

  • pushing
  • pulling
  • rotating
  • squatting or performing a level change (step up /step down)
  • locomotion

The more the above pillars of human movement are done while on your feet, the better your proprioception, and the less likely you are to fall.

This includes doing the movements for both aerobic (cardiovascular) and strength (muscular) benefits.

So while the circuit of machines at the local health club might be effective for helping with muscular strength, you’re not doing so in a way that replicates natural movement.

See more on functional training with my article “Functional Exercise Benefits For Baby Boomers.”

And this one as well: “Functional Exercise Benefits.”

If you live in the Charleston, SC area and would like assistance with putting together a personalized functional exercise program for your individual needs, we can help.

Even if that’s just a few personal training sessions with Colleen where she can provide you with proper instruction on how to the exercises and develop a program for you to do at home, a local fitness center you may belong to, etc.

Feel free to leave any questions below.

Shane Doll CPT, CSCS is a certified Charleston personal trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts. With a staff of over 10 certified fitness professionals, Shaping Concepts provides personal fitness training in Charleston with a specialty on weight loss and body transformation for middle age and older adults. Sign up today for a no obligations consultation.

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Category: Fitness Training.