As you age, your body undergoes changes. These changes can impact your ability to perform everyday tasks and participate in physical activities. Functional movement and exercise are simple ways to maintain or improve physical function.
Functional movement exercises mimic the movements of daily life. They can help older adults maintain their independence for longer and improve their quality of life.
Functional movement can be trained in several ways, using specific exercises, often called functional patterns. These patterns train your body to maintain the coordination, strength, and flexibility needed to counter the effects of natural aging.
Understanding the principles of functional movement and how it can benefit your overall well-being is an excellent first step toward starting a safe and effective exercise program.
What is Functional Movement?
Functional movement exercises are designed to imitate movements we frequently use daily, such as bending, reaching, and twisting.
Breaking down complex motions that we perform daily and creating exercises based on those movements can target our strength and balance to improve in the areas we need most.
Focusing on these movements can improve our ability to perform everyday tasks. Carrying groceries, getting up from a chair, or reaching for an object on a high shelf will often become more manageable with some functional training. (1)
Functional movement exercises can help improve balance, flexibility, strength, and coordination. These are all essential for maintaining physical function in older adults.
Functional exercises can often be done with little to no equipment. They can be modified to accommodate any fitness level or mobility limitations.
Functional Movement and Injury Prevention for Active Living
Functional movement training originated in athletes but has gradually spread into many other groups, including children and seniors. Understanding how functional training helps athletes can give us a better idea of how it might benefit your daily activities.
Functional training helps athletes improve their physical performance and reduce their risk of injury to improve an athlete’s agility, speed, power, and endurance.
By focusing on movements that mimic the actions performed in their sport, athletes can improve their technique and develop targeted strength and flexibility.
Functional movement exercises can also help athletes with balance and stability. This can be particularly useful in sports that require quick direction changes, like basketball or football.
Improving an athlete’s strength and mobility through functional exercises can reduce the risk of muscle strains, joint injuries, and other common sports injuries. (2)
For example, muscle imbalances occur when certain muscle groups become overdeveloped or underdeveloped due to repetitive movements or poor posture. In my clinical practice, I have seen examples of functional movement training correcting muscle imbalances in my patients.
By utilizing a carefully selected collection of movements with physical therapy patients, sometimes known as corrective exercises, we can fix problems before they develop into pain or injury.
The Importance of Functional Movement for Older Adults
Functional training and screening are not only for athletes. In fact, getting screened by a certified professional is one of the most straightforward ways to diagnose and address movement issues for people of all ages and ability levels.
Functional movement exercises are especially beneficial for older adults, helping to maintain strength, balance, and mobility, similar to how we would approach our corrective strategies with athletes.
However, the needs of older adults will be more carefully directed toward problems you might encounter later in life.
For example, falls are a significant concern for older adults, as they can lead to severe injuries and even death. By focusing on functional exercises, older adults reduce their risk of falling to maintain independence for longer. (1)
There are a wide variety of functional movements that can be beneficial for older adults. Full-body exercises are essential for overall health and longevity. Activities that use your whole body are central to functional training.
Some of the most effective movement patterns include sit-to-stands, squats, and step-ups to strengthen and stabilize the lower body. Conversely, push-ups and planks can help to improve upper body strength and core stability. (4)
Working With a Professional
Working with a qualified trainer or physical therapist when starting a functional movement exercise program is critical. These professionals can help tailor exercises to individual needs and abilities, especially in physical therapy.
PTs or trainers can also provide guidance on proper form and technique to reduce the risk of injury. Many are also certified to provide a Selective Functional Movement Assessment (SFMA) to diagnose movement pattern dysfunction before it becomes a serious problem.
As with any form of exercise, it’s essential to start slowly and gradually increase the intensity and duration of exercise to avoid injury. Always check with your doctor before starting a new exercise program.
Functional Patterns for Older Adults
While functional movement training can benefit athletes and non-athletes of all ages, selecting the proper movements to address your needs is essential. Here are some of the primary areas of focus when we talk about functional movement training for seniors:
Balance & Core Training
Balance and core training are essential components of exercise programs for older adults. Frequently, when I initially evaluate a geriatric patient, the midsection muscles tend to be among the weakest.
Balance training involves exercises that challenge the body’s ability to maintain stability and control while standing, walking, and more.
Benefits of balance training for older adults include:
Improved proprioception (awareness of body position),
Increased muscle strength, endurance, and motor control
Decreased risk of falls
Core training focuses on strengthening the muscles of the abdomen, lower back, and hips to maintain good posture and balance.
Benefits of core training for older adults include:
Improved spinal stability
Reduced lower back pain
Improved ability to perform daily activities. (3)
Balance exercises include standing on one foot, walking heel-to-toe, or standing on an unstable surface. In contrast, core exercises may consist of planks, bridges, or pelvic tilts.
In my experience as a therapist, strengthening a patient’s abdominal and trunk muscles typically results in improved balance.
Patients often feel uncoordinated when learning to use their core muscles. Still, I have seen great results with some basic education and physical cues. These are some of the most important functional movements we can develop as we age.
Gait & Posture Re-Education
As we age, we commonly develop problems with walking or standing upright. Gait and posture retraining involve exercises and activities that aim to improve your walking pattern and body alignment.
This type of training typically requires direction and supervision from a physical therapist. My patients benefit most from personalized in-the-moment feedback, which helps to immediately alter movement patterns.
The benefits of gait and posture retraining for older adults include:
Improved balance and stability
Increased walking speed and endurance
Decreased risk of falls
By improving gait and posture, older adults can reduce pain and discomfort and improve breathing, walking efficiency, and digestion. (1)
An example walking program for one of my patients includes cues to strike with your heel first or to increase your step length. Another provides cues to increase arm swing while walking and to look straight ahead or pinch your shoulder blades together for a more upright posture.
For many of my older adult patients, I often recommend modifying footwear to increase support or using a walking aid, such as a cane or walker.
Mobility & Transfer Training
Mobility and transfer training includes exercises to improve “transfer” skills, such as getting up from a chair, getting in and out of bed, and using the toilet. It may also include movements like squats and lunges.
Repetitive practice of these movements and proper body mechanics can ease the effort required for these transitional movements when doing them throughout your day.
By improving mobility and transfer skills, older adults can also reduce the risk of falls, increase community mobility and improve home safety. (4)
Exercises focusing on improving specific transfer skills, such as getting up from a chair or getting in and out of a car, may include sit-to-stands, lunges, and squats. Practicing getting up and down from the floor is also very important for older adults.
Knowing the correct way to get up from the floor, whether after a fall or just playing with grandkids, is helpful.
Plyometric exercise involves “explosive” movements like jumping or hopping. The muscle is briefly stretched during a plyometric movement before quickly contracting to produce force. These are sometimes referred to as “power” movement patterns.
While typically associated with younger athletes, plyometric exercise can also benefit older adults. Still, it should be scaled to a more accessible version for safety for most older people.
Exercises focusing on power and explosiveness improve bone density, cardiovascular health, and balance and coordination for older people.
Low-impact plyometric exercises like aerobic step-ups or jumping jacks can be a great place to start. Plyometric exercises include side-to-side hops, single-leg hops, or squat jumps for those with good balance and healthy joints. (5)
These exercises can be modified to reduce impact and increase safety. An example for many seniors might be using a lower step height for step-ups or performing “jumps” in which the feet only very briefly leave the ground. It may even be appropriate to lift the heels, then drop them down rapidly to build bone strength more gently without causing strain.
It is important to note that plyometric exercise may not be appropriate for all seniors, especially those with mobility issues or joint pain. These movements should be done with supervision for safety.
Older adults should consult their healthcare provider before starting a plyometric exercise program. We recommend working with a qualified fitness professional to ensure that exercises are modified to meet your individual needs and abilities.
Range of Motion Exercises
One of the easiest ways for older adults to start incorporating functional movement exercises into their daily routine is using body weight or range of motion exercises.
These exercises can be done anywhere, anytime. They can increase flexibility, stretch muscles, and improve joint mobility.
Repetitive performance of range of motion exercises can strengthen the smaller, supportive muscles in joints like your shoulders and hips.
Examples of ROM exercises include reaching overhead for shoulder range of motion, supine (lying down) leg lifts for hip flexor strength, and seated forward flexion for active stretching of the lower back.
Strength Training Exercises
Resistance training is one of the most popular types of functional movement exercise for older adults.
Resistance training uses external weights or bands to challenge the muscles and improve strength. Resistance training has been shown to improve muscle strength and mass, bone density, and overall physical function in older adults.
Common functional strength training exercises might include bicep curls to increase arm strength for carrying heavy items such as grocery bags, bodyweight rows to simulate getting into or out of a car, or weighted squats, which translate to standing up from a chair while holding an object.
Functional movement exercises are essential to maintaining physical function and independence in older adults.
By focusing on exercises that mimic movements used in daily life, older adults can reduce their risk of falls and maintain their independence for longer.
Working with a qualified professional when starting a functional movement exercise program is essential to ensure proper form and technique. Talk to your physical therapist if you’d like to complete a movement screening or learn more about your movement patterns and how functional movement training can improve your day-to-day activities.
de Bruin, E. D., & Murer, K. (2007). Effect of additional functional exercises on balance in elderly people. Clinical rehabilitation, 21(2), 112-121.
Bagherian, S., Ghasempoor, K., Rahnama, N., & Wikstrom, E. A. (2019). The effect of core stability training on functional movement patterns in college athletes. Journal of sport rehabilitation, 28(5), 444-449.
Okada, T., Huxel, K. C., & Nesser, T. W. (2011). Relationship between core stability, functional movement, and performance. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 25(1), 252-261.
Paterson, D. H., Jones, G. R., & Rice, C. L. (2007). Ageing and physical activity: evidence to develop exercise recommendations for older adults. Applied physiology, nutrition, and metabolism, 32(S2E), S69-S108.
Davies, G., Riemann, B. L., & Manske, R. (2015). Current concepts of plyometric exercise. International journal of sports physical therapy, 10(6), 760.