Exercises for Every Body
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How Functional Fitness Can Keep You Active and Pain-Free at Any Age

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Exercises for Every Body
kali9/istockphoto

Exercises for Every Body

You don't need to be in your golden years (or even middle-aged) to tweak your back while unloading the car or discover one day that you can’t reach behind and scratch your shoulder the way you used to. But you can reduce the risk of future pain and injury by learning a few simple exercises that will improve your functional mobility and make you feel better. Better still, you don't need to go to a gym or work with a personal trainer to build the kind of everyday strength and flexibility that will benefit you at any age.

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What Is Functional Fitness, Anyhow?
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What Is Functional Fitness, Anyhow?

There's nothing particularly new about this kind of exercise. It borrows elements from yoga, physical therapy, and strength training. But being functionally fit isn't the same as bulking up at the gym. "It's exercise and movement methods that will help a person to perform their regular activities of daily living, along with the recreational physical activities they enjoy," says Jarlo Ilano, a Seattle-based physical therapist and co-founder of GMB Fitness.

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What Are Some of the Health Benefits?
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What Are Some of the Health Benefits?

Functional fitness exercises are designed to improve your day-to-day mobility, coordination, muscle control, speed of movement, and range of motion. Think of a plumber on the job. "He needs to be flexible and mobile to crawl around in spaces to fix toilets and pipes and drains. So positions such as kneeling, squatting, and moving in and out of them are [important]," Ilano says.

Do You Need to Join a Gym?
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Do You Need to Join a Gym?

No, although a gym can help if you're already physically fit or want to get in better shape. The simplest exercises — in which you use your own bodyweight — don't require any equipment, Ilano says. "From the typical pushups and jumping jacks and all that we all did in P.E. to more individualized movements, you can learn and do these exercises with just a bit of space at home." Once you've gotten the basic movements down, you can incorporate light hand weights ranging from 2 to 10 pounds into most of these exercises to build strength.

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How Do I Get Started?
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How Do I Get Started?

First, the common-sense stuff: If you haven't exercised in awhile or you're recovering from an injury, you'll want to get the all-clear from a doctor first. And if you ever feel dizzy, lightheaded, or experience pain while working out, stop immediately and seek medical help. Stretching is a great way to ease into a routine because it's gentle enough on the body that you can do it every day and you'll see small benefits in just a few weeks. (You can even stretch without leaving your chair.) They're also a great warm-up for these 10 essential functional fitness exercises. The goal is to complete three sets of eight to 12 repetitions for each exercise, but it's okay to just do one set of eight to 10 for starters.

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Standing on One Leg
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Standing on One Leg

Good balance is essential for avoiding injury, especially falls. This simple move, one in a series of stability workouts developed by the American Council on Exercise, will help improve coordination and balance. Stand tall with feet apart (about the width of your hips). Extend your arms in a T pose, then slowly extend one leg about 6 inches out in front of you, hold briefly, and return. Next, move your leg behind you, pause, and return, then repeat the process to the side and back. Switch legs and repeat the process.

Pro tip: Don't worry if you can't extend your leg so far out; do what you're comfortable with, even if it's only an inch or two.

Related: 10 Common Reasons for Falling Injuries — and How to Prevent Them

Chair Stand
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Chair Stand

It's a fact that too much sitting can be unhealthy. But as we age, the simple act of rising from a seated position can become difficult. Chair stands are another great basic functional mobility exercise good for beginners, ACE trainers say, because they help build strength in your posterior (the quadricep and gluteal muscles). Using a simple straight-backed chair, begin in a seated position with feet flat on the floor in line with your hips. Keep your hands in your lap and your back straight without resting against the chairback. Ground yourself with your heels as you rise into a standing position.

Pro tip: For an added challenge, open your arms wide and raise them to shoulder level, gently pinching your shoulder blades together as you stand.

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Standing Squat
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Standing Squat

Ever had to pick up heavy luggage at the airport or set down a heavy bag of groceries? Then you know how important it is to be able to squat down and rise to a standing position. Using a chair can help you practice this exercise and provide a little reassurance in case you're afraid of falling backward. With your feet apart, slowly bend your knees and push your buttocks back as if you're going to sit down. Look straight ahead, not down at the floor. When you feel your backside touch the chair, rise slowly.

Pro tip: Extending your arms in front of you or crossing them over your chest as you raise and lower yourself will help keep you feeling steady.

Related: 11 Ways to Get Exercise While Just Going About Your Day

Kneeling Lunge
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Kneeling Lunge

Lunges are great for building leg muscles, but they're also essential for improving core strength and hip flexibility — especially if you spend your workday sitting at a desk. You can do this exercise with or without hand weights, ACE trainers say. Beginners may want to try this while keeping one hand on a chair for balance. To perform a basic lunge, stand straight, then extend one leg as if you're about to take a giant step forward. Plant your foot and slowly ease down without leaning forward, bending your extended leg to a 90-degree angle as you do.

Pro tip: Keep the knee of your front leg directly over your ankle, not in front of it, or you risk injuring yourself.

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Deadlift
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Deadlift

We bend over to pick things up all the time: a basket of laundry, a toddler, a lucky penny. Deadlifts strengthen your lower back and help keep your hips flexible so you can do these things. With feet hip-width apart, bend forward at the waist, hinging at the waist (think of folding a pocket knife). If you're using hand weights, keep your arms long as they travel straight down toward your shins.

Pro tip: Keep knees flexed gently and back straight as you fold over.

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Standing Push/Press or Modified Push up
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Standing Push/Press or Modified Push up

Upper body strength is crucial for just about everything, and the good old-fashioned push-up remains one of the best exercises for building the pectorals and triceps, as well as strengthening the core. It's also tough to do for beginners. Modified push-ups are easier than traditional push-ups, but they're just as effective. Place your hands in line with your shoulders, knees on the ground, then lower yourself to the floor before pushing back up.

Pro tip: Don't let your back sag or belly dip while you're doing this exercise.

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Bird Dog
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Bird Dog

Another great exercise for your core, the bird dog will also improve your overall stability and can help relieve tension in your lower back caused by poor posture or too much sitting. You may want a towel or yoga mat for this exercise. Get down on the floor, hands in line with your shoulders, knees square with your hips. Keeping your gaze on the floor, extend your left arm carefully while kicking your right leg out and back. Pull your limbs back in, then repeat the process with your opposite side.

Pro tip: Maintaining a straight back is key to this exercise. Don't twist your hips or shoulders or try to kick your leg above your buttocks.

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Bicep Curls
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Bicep Curls

Sure, a well-developed set of biceps will make your arms look impressive, but these muscles give you the strength to lift. To strengthen your biceps, a simple curl is all you need. Keep your arms long and elbows close to your sides as you grip hand weights with palms facing forward. Lift with your elbows (not the wrists) and curl toward your shoulder.

Pro tip: Stand tall and don't lean backward as you raise the weights, or your bicep muscles won't get the full benefit of this exercise.

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Tricep Extensions
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Tricep Extensions

Triceps help you push and pull, working in tandem with biceps and the muscles of the shoulders and upper back. You can do this exercise while standing or sitting. Take your hand weight in both hands and extend your arms straight overhead as though you're trying to press the weight into the ceiling. Pivot gently at the elbows, bending forearms back and down until they're at a 90-degree angle as though you're trying to lower that weight to the floor.

Pro tip: You don't need a lot of weight for this exercise, especially if you're just starting out. Try a 5- or 2-pound dumbbell.

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Standing (Bent-Over) Row
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Standing (Bent-Over) Row

You may never find yourself in a rowboat, but think about how many times a day you open a door. This exercise will help strengthen deltoid, rhomboid, and trapezius muscles (your upper back and shoulders) as well as use your biceps. Using a chair or table for balance, grasp a weight in one hand and hinge at the waist so you're bent slightly forward. Raise the weight to your shoulder, keeping your arm and elbow close to your torso as you lift.

Pro tip: Let the muscles of your back and shoulder — not your arm — do the work.

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