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Fitness that functions like you do

Functional fitness is all about helping you perform better outside the gym.

As a nightclub manager in New York City, Gregory Jones keeps active at work — and not just dancing. He lifts cases of liquor, stocks the shelves and even decorates. During the holidays, he hoisted Christmas trimmings up a 12-foot ladder and hung them from the ceiling all by himself, he says proudly.

Though he's worked out for years, Jones, 45, credits his trainers at Chelsea Piers Sports Complex with helping him really keep pace on the job — and hold steady on that ladder. "My strength, endurance and balance all have improved," he says. Better balance abilities also have helped with one of his favorite recreational activities, snowboarding.

The results aren't just from Jones' trainers working him harder, though that was part of it. The main reason, he says, is that the trainers focused his workout on exercises that would help him in his daily life, whether at the nightclub or on the slopes.

The approach is called functional fitness, and both the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Council on Exercise have named it one of the biggest fitness trends for this year.

About making life easier
The idea is simply to help an individual function better outside of the gym. "It's an exercise program that's designed to make your activities of daily life easier," says Walt Thompson, a professor of exercise science at Georgia State University in Atlanta, who last year conducted a worldwide trend survey for the ACSM.

So rather than just running you through a series of traditional free-weight activities or a trip on the treadmill, personal trainers increasingly are coming up with tailor-made ways to build clients’ strength, coordination, balance and endurance, Thompson explains.

A factory worker may lift 5-gallon water containers rather than a barbell, for example. A new mom may practice hoisting a stroller to help her wrangle it in and out of the car, or she may work on specific back muscles to help her carry her baby with less strain. A frequent flier may practice sprinting (to catch that plane!) or bench-press his luggage. And a senior citizen may do squats to retain the ability to get in and out of a chair without assistance.

Of course, the treadmill and old-fashioned weight routines still are good for you. But it's also good to challenge your body in ways that you might not normally do at the gym but often do outside of it, says Jan Griscom, a trainer at Chelsea Piers who works with Jones.

"In the gym we've talked about isolating body parts for years, but in the real world you don't move like that," Griscom says.

More natural moves
Functional training "is more versatile," adds Carla Sottovia, an exercise physiologist at the Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas and a spokesperson for the IDEA Health and Fitness Association.

Functional fitness emphasizes getting more of the body involved in a move, with multiple muscle and joint activities that combine upper- and lower-body movements, for instance, or require lifting and twisting.

"I always think of moving the body in all three planes of motion: front and back, side to side and rotation," Sottovia says.

Popular balance trainers such as the BOSU or wobble boards are the most recognizable face of functional fitness. But beyond balance, functional fitness focuses on a range of physical skills and incorporates a variety of equipment, including fitness bands, medicine balls, specially designed free-motion weight machines or anything in the real world that offers a challenge — stairs, strollers, water containers and more.

For Cindy Eichenholz, 43, of Dallas, functional fitness is about having the energy to keep up with her three kids. But it's also about maintaining an edge with her tennis and golf games.

Her program, designed by Sottovia and a couple other trainers, focuses on improving her reaction time and strengthening her core. She frequently does interval training, with short sprints and little time between activities, so that her heart rate stays up. That helps her with speed and endurance. She does back exercises that are aimed at helping her golf swing. And for her core, she does a lot of balance exercises on one leg and work on the BOSU.

"My core is so strong and I'm not sitting there doing 2,500 crunches. You really have to engage so much more of your body," Eichenholz says. "And when I'm on the court, I'm fast."

Griscom says many clients are interested in tailoring their workouts to their favorite sport. And one of the first things she does with them is determine whether they've had sports injuries or which ones they're most at risk for sustaining. Then she works on strengthening the weak spots.

"I call it 'prehab,' which is taking care of the injury before it happens," says Griscom, a consultant to the new book, "The Chelsea Piers Fitness Solution," which is aimed at helping people find a sport that's right for them.

People who play tennis or other racquet sports may have a weak rotator cuff and resulting shoulder pain, or injuries of the lower back, knees and groin, so she works on those areas. Basketball players are at risk for injuries of the shoulder, back, knees and ankles. Runners may have weak hamstrings.

For Jones, the nightclub manager, functional training involves a mix of a lot of activities, including balancing on balls, doing squats, pumping heavy and light weights and sweating through killer cardio.

"Sometimes I feel like I'm in ballet class and sometimes I feel like I'm in a weight-lifting class," he says.

For him, the sum total has been success: "I wanted to step up my workout for better results, and that's what I got."

Smart Fitness appears every other Tuesday.