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FRW Five for Life: Functional Fitness

Nobody does exercise quite like Americans do exercise. We do cross-fit, we run 5k’s on every holiday, we Peloton, we lift, we row, we kickbox, we plank, we sweat. And yet, according to CDC figures in 2020, the prevalence of obesity in the adult population ranged from 39.8% to 44.3%, depending on age group. And, perhaps even more frightening, nearly 20% of children and adolescents aged 2-19 years were classified as obese in 2020.

Where, then, is the disconnect here? For a country so dedicated to sweating it out (for reference, the fitness industry’s market size in the US has been placed between $30 and $35bn this year), we are horribly inept at converting on this – quite literal – momentum and maintaining a healthy body weight, among other physical health metrics. The issue is not so much what we ARE doing when we go to the gym or take that class or head out for a run; rather, the issue is what we are NOT doing the other 23 hours of the day. For most of us, our daily exercise is a one-and-done deal – we hit the gym, we work hard, we come home (or go to the office) and we sit. And sit some more. And maybe get up to grab lunch or coffee, but sitting is our primary activity for the vast majority of our waking hours. And we’ve all read the headlines that make no bones about the detrimental effects of sitting: “The Dangers of Sitting”, “Sitting is the New Smoking”, “Sitting 6-8 Hours a Day Linked to Increased Risk of Early Death”. With news like this on our social media feeds, how could we NOT get our butts out of our chairs a little more often?

Most people will say they are busy. At work, too many deadlines and projects keep us glued to our chairs. After work, we are in the car shuttling kids from one activity to the next, or we are sitting down to watch television – a time for relaxation we believe we have “earned”. But the uncomfortable (literally) truth is that what you have really earned is time to treat your body the way it deserves to be treated: by being active in small, countless ways throughout your day. Because a body in motion is a happier, healthier body.

What does this mean, in practice, when your days are filled with work commitments, family commitments, house and life commitments? How are you possibly to be expected to add yet one more thing to your “to-do” list?

Functional fitness isn’t about adding to your list; rather, it’s about rethinking your list and redefining how you are structuring your day. Incorporating more small doses of movement around your appointments, your meetings, your commitments. In an ideal world, functional fitness would involve walking to your friend’s house across the village for a visit, being out in the fields (or garden) to harvest or maintain your crops, having the time in the evening to take an hour-long stroll around your neighborhood. But in our hectic western world, where success is largely defined by metrics, KPI’s, and promotions, we must be realistic with what IS doable.

So let’s set a collective goal: find ways to incorporate small bouts of additional movement every day. I offer suggestions, but your biggest takeaway should be this: 5 minutes of movement every hour isn’t going to set you back at work. Getting your blood moving, clearing your head, perhaps taking in some fresh air – all of these actions will have far more collective benefit than any loss of productivity from that 5 minutes away.

Ways to incorporate functional fitness into your daily life:

· Walk to do your errands. Is there a grocery store around the corner? Or craving a latte from the coffee shop down the road? WALK. Don’t drive. I lived in Prague for a few months in my 20’s and rarely ran and never went to a gym, and yet I was leaner and stronger from simply walking everywhere than I had been for years. Remember that.

· Take the stairs. Such a basic thing that takes no more than a few minutes, but walking up those few flights of stairs will give your heart rate a boost and give you a mini-workout.

· Start a garden. If you haven’t already. If you’ve ever spent time planting seeds or digging dirt, you know that is it surprisingly challenging physical labor. And there’s something very cathartic about focusing on nothing other than the earth beneath your feet.

· Stuck at your kid’s soccer practice? Instead of popping a squat on the nearest bench, walk around the field. Better yet, enlist some other parents to walk with you and you can get some much-needed social time in, too.

· Don’t say no to play. If you have kids, you’ve probably found yourself groaning when they ask you to play with them – whether that’s with Barbies, outside on the swings, or throwing a baseball around, there’s a simple joy derived from these actions that we, as adults, have lost. And more often than not, playing with your children will involve movement. So say yes on occasion!

· Phone a friend. Been meaning to catch up with that good friend but it’s somehow been months since you last saw each other? Set a walking date – or hiking date. Catch up while getting some light exercise.

· Practice what you preach. Again, if you have kids, I can promise you’ve uttered the phrase “get off your iPad/computer/tv/screen” – possibly more times than you care to count. Parents’ hearts are typically in the right place – we want our kids to be active and healthy and not glued to screens all day. But that message does get lost a bit when your children see you glued to your phone 24/7. So be mindful about being a good role model.

· Have a picnic! My dad used to suggest picnics frequently when I was growing up, but my brother and mother usually opted out. Turns out, he was onto something. Yes, you may be sitting down to eat, but once you’re outside, you are far more likely to go on an impromptu walk/hike/adventure, especially if you have kids in tow.

· Pay it forward with your elders. My father is far more active now, in his 70’s, than he was while I was growing up. Part of this is, of course, that he’s now retired and has more free time. But part of it is a reflection of a growing awareness that seniors can – and should – stay active for as long as possible. So invest some active time with your mother/father/grandparents/etc. – a family walk, golfing, whatever gets your family going, don’t forget to include all generations.

Functional fitness is a critical component of leading an active, healthy lifestyle, and it goes well beyond whatever activity you capture on your GPS tracker of choice. Not only will your physical health benefit by integrating small acts of movement into your daily life – your mental and emotional well-being will swing upward, too.

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