3 Easy Ways to Build Functional Fitness, According to Your SilverSneakers Instructor
Not sure what this type of exercise even is? SilverSneakers trainer Kari Houston explains — and talks about why it’s so key to good health.
When Kari Houston began working with SilverSneakers about 15 years ago, she didn’t realize it would be so rewarding.
“I see so many older adults becoming healthier and fit through exercise,” she says. “I’ve had a couple of men who’ve had open heart surgery and their doctors are just amazed at how they’re able to pop up out of bed afterward.”
The SilverSneakers LIVE online classes she teaches have been another surprise, because they allow participants to take on new challenges.
“We’ve all been in a position where you go to the gym and want to try something new, but you aren’t sure if it will be right for you,” Houston says. “Are you physically going to be able to do it? Are you going to like the instructor? Will you feel awkward?”
Working out at home removes those concerns. “You can experiment in the comfort of your own home and go at your own pace,” she adds. And physical fitness isn’t the only benefit. Research published in the Journals of Gerontology shows that learning new skills also enhances your mental fitness.
“I always tell people, ‘What good is a healthy body if you don’t have a healthy brain to go along with it?’ You need to be doing things that you’re not comfortable with and aren’t familiar with,” says Houston. Those sorts of challenges have been found to boost brain health.
But the foundation of Houston’s approach is an emphasis on functional fitness, a type of exercise that supports everyday activities — like getting in and out of a chair or sitting on the ground to play with a grandchild.
Read on for three of her favorite tips for building and maintaining functional fitness, and learn more about the importance of this type of exercise in our Guide to Functional Fitness, found here.
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Tip #1: Get Up
A lot of us focus on taking a certain number of steps each day, when it’s actually more important to limit the amount of time you spend sitting, says Houston.
“Sitting is the new smoking,” she points out. Too much sedentary time has been linked to an increased risk of health problems like cardiovascular disease, obesity, and Type 2 diabetes. Yet Americans sit for an average of 11 hours a day,
Houston’s solution: Don’t sit for more than 45 minutes at a time. “Even if you don’t have a fancy activity tracker, everyone has a stove, a microwave — something with a timer on it.” Set it whenever you sit down to watch a program, do a craft, or work on the computer. When the timer goes off, get up and move around.
In fact, breaking up sedentary time with movement has been shown to be better for you than doing an hour-long workout, followed by sitting all day, according to Current Cardiovascular Risk Reports.
“You don’t have to take a walk. You can do some dishes, or put in a load of laundry,” she adds. “It’s really just about getting up and getting your legs moving for around 15 minutes.” Then reset the timer before you sit back down.
Learn more about “Movement Snacks” here.
Tip #2: When You Do Sit, Do It Right
People typically sit all the way back in their chairs, but that doesn’t promote functional fitness. “Instead, sit on the front half of your chair, roll your shoulders back, lift your chest and draw your belly button in,” says Houston. Your feet should also be directly below your knees.
“This position will build your core muscles even when you’re just in a chair doing nothing,” she explains. Your core muscles extend all the way from your quads up to your shoulders.
And here’s another tip: When you get up, put your hands on your legs instead of the arm rests or the chair and push yourself straight up without leaning forward. (The better you get at squats— see below — the easier this will be.)
Work out with Kari Houston! She teaches the following LIVE online classes: SilverSneakers Classic, SilverSneakers Circuit, Walk Strong (Express), Cardio & Strength (Express), and Gentle Stretch (Express).
Tip #3: Work on Your Squats
“The squat is the most important exercise you can master, because at the end of the day, it’s your independence,” Houston says. “It’s what gets you up and down, out of the bed, in and out of the car, up and down from the commode. It’s really one of the most important moves you can do.”
Houston recommends using a full-length mirror (or having a friend record a video) to check your form when doing squats. “A squat does not have to be deep. It just has to be done properly,” she notes. Check both your front-facing position and side profile.
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Your feet should be about shoulder-width apart. Keep your chest up as you bend your knees and squat down. And make sure your knees are aligned over your ankles. (If they go out past your toes you could risk an injury.)
You can modify the squat slightly, if it’s more comfortable — with your feet a little more than shoulder-width apart, and your toes turned out (at 10 or 2 o’clock). Just keep your knees tracking in the same direction as your toes.
From the side, your ankle and knee should be at around a 45-degree-angle. And your tailbone should be just above your heels.
“A nice and easy tempo of two counts down, two counts up is best,” says Houston, who adds that it’s a great idea to warm up your leg muscles with a short walk before doing your squats.
Press play to try 4 Ways to Do a Squat:
Putting It All Together
Adopting these three tips — getting up every 45 minutes, sitting properly toward the front of your chair, and incorporating squats — will pay off quickly.
“You’ll notice increased strength and ease getting in and out of a chair,” she says. “Your core will be stronger, and you’ll have better balance. And it really doesn’t take very long.”
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