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Are You Functionally Fit?

Author Karl Knopf, EdD


Health experts embrace the concept of physical activity for the prevention and management of chronic disease. Physical activity has been defined as movement produced by skeletal muscles that results in energy expenditures. Physical activity is closely related to, but distinct from, exercise and physical fitness. Physical fitness relates to the ability to perform physical activity and involves specific measurable components. Exercise, a subset of physical activity, is planned, structured, and repetitive movement done to improve or maintain one or more of these components.

Can you gain the necessary health benefits simply through random physical activity rather than following a formalized set of exercises? Research has shown remarkable benefits can be gained through the accumulation of physical activity. In other words, intermittent short bouts of physical activity, such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator or walking short distances to do errands instead of driving, do add up to better health. However, once achieving that goal, maybe you are ready to move on to the next level.

Functional Fitness

To be functionally fit means that you can carry out everyday activities that require a degree of physical exertion, such as carrying groceries, walking up the stairs, and getting in and out of bed. It is similar to sport-specific training in that you are training muscles for the “sport of living”. However, if you want to enjoy hobbies (maybe gardening or hiking) or sports (such as golf, tennis, or cycling), then you also need to functionally fit for those specific requirements.  Overall, the purpose of functional exercise is to train your muscles for their specific function in the activities you need and want to perform.


Functional exercise is an application of the S.A.I.D. principle of physical training, or Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands. For example, your muscles will adapt to the specific types of demands placed on them but training the muscles will not necessarily improve your aerobic function. A well-designed exercise program will help you function better in activities of daily living, as well as other movement skills, by targeting various exercise components.  For example, stability training is an important component of any functional exercise program.

When learning a new exercise, it is best to focus on form first, that is why working with a personal trainer or attending group exercises can be so beneficial. It is tempting to focus on how much weight you can lift, how many reps you can achieve, or how hard you can push during cardio training rather than taking time to actually learn proper technique and feel the movement. Let’s look at an example: the seated row performed on a weight machine or a single-arm row performed with dumbbells.  It is important to pay attention to retracting the shoulder blades throughout the rowing motion while keeping the spine aligned (not rounding forward).

Helpful hint:  Often, if you take the “load” out of the exercise equation, you can learn the move properly. For a muscle to memorize a move, you must repeat the exercise over and over again, always with good form. Once the move is learned, then load can be introduced. Purposeful exercise should be your goal. 

Functional training should also include a progression of movement patterns, graduated from simple to complex, and should take into account your physical ability. For example, with resistance training you might begin with isolation exercises that work one or two muscles around a single joint, then progress to compound movements involving multiple muscle groups and several joints.  This leads us to functionality, as daily activities as well as sports, often require several body parts to move simultaneously in a coordinated effort.

In general, a functional fitness program will place emphasis on the following components:

  • Fostering sound postural alignment.
  • Maintaining a proper base of support.
  • Improving flexibility and joint mobility.
  • Balancing strength versus dynamic stability.
  • Interpreting external versus internal sensory input (proprioception).
  • Coordinating proper sequencing of movement with proper motor control.

Train smarter, not just harder, to become functionally fit for life!



Knopf, K. 2004. Principles of Fitness Therapy. Hunter Textbooks.



Dr. Karl Knopf has been involved in health and fitness for over 45 years, working in almost every aspect of the industry – from personal trainer and therapist to consultant. While at Foothill College, he was the Director of the Fitness Therapy Program, a teacher of adaptive PE, and recognized with several awards for teaching excellence. For 15 years, Dr. Knopf served as the President and Founder of Fitness Educators Of Older Adults. He has authored many articles, has written over 20 books, and has been a frequent guest on the Sit and Be Fit television show.

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