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Keep Up with the Grandkids! Top 10 Functional Exercises for Older Adults.

– by Emma Mattison, NASM-CPT, CNC, SFC

You may have heard of the term "functional fitness," as this training increases in popularity. However, can you explain to someone in your own words what it is? What about some example exercises? Is is fact or fad?

As a certified fitness professional specializing in functional fitness & mobility training for older adults, I will explain the WHAT, the WHY, and the HOW, of "functional exercises," so you can understand it for yourself and apply it to your own life.

What are Functional Exercises?

We all want to enjoy our lives, and move freely and easily. Whether it’s bending down to garden or playing basketball with your grandkids, functional movements enable us to enjoy our lives! So what about, "Functional Exercise?" This type of fitness training develops your muscles to do daily tasks more easily and safely. Functional fitness exercises mimic everyday movements in order to train your muscles to work together for their daily tasks, whether for home, work or play.

Functional exercises are particularly beneficial for older adults because they mimic common activities, train several muscle groups simultaneously and in general require little specialized equipment. Most of these functional fitness exercises can be performed in your own home!

Six Main Movements to Know

In "movement" we define about 6 major functional patterns:

  1. the Squat

  2. the Hip Hinge

  3. the Overhead Press

  4. the Push

  5. the Pull

  6. *Rotational movement

Let's take a look at the first movement on this list: the squat. A squat is a functional exercise because it works the muscles you use to crouch down to take a pot out of the bottom cabinet, or pull a weed in that garden.

Another example is the fifth movement: the pull. A standing rowing movement trains the muscles you use to pull open the dryer door, or start up the motor of that chain-saw.

Checking out that third movement: the overhead press. This one enables you to lift that box of Christmas decorations you packed up in January, and place it back on the top shelf of your garage.

Last, but not least, I throw in "rotational movement" with an asterisk because it is so important! Each one of the five movements preceding it can be combined with some form of rotation. For example, grabbing a flat-head screw driver, realizing you actually needed a Phillip's, and turning back around to replace the wrong screw driver/ take the one you needed. There are a large combination of movements going on when you throw in rotation! But if we fail to train this type of movement alongside others, we can increase our risks of falls and injuries when performing these enjoyable and regular

daily tasks.

An Ignored Functional Exercise: Balance Training

While many trainers and online programs boast of functional fitness exercises with the basic movement patterns listed above, there is a training style that is increasingly more popular – and a major benefit for older adults! This training is referred to as "balance training," and can be completed in your own home, with NO tight rope required!

Life requires balance. With every step we take, we are transferring weight from one foot to another. That means there are moments when we are only on one leg. If we need to rotate our bodies or perform a change of direction, anticipating turning to pick up our grandchild running enthusiastically around the corner towards us – that requires balance! This training style takes into consideration the 3 balance systems of the body, and can improve our mobility significantly. In fact, here is a research citation from a systematic review article supporting the beneficial effects of balance training & postural strength training on the mobility and lower extremity function of adults over 65 (Hamed et al. 2018).

Below is a list of functional exercise examples, including some balance exercises:

Functional Exercise Name

Practical Examples


Walking; general mobility; getting from door to car; moving about one’s home

Romanian Deadlift (hip hinge)

Walking or running uphill; unloading the dishwasher; raking or shoveling; lifting a small child

Torso Twists (w/ resistance band)

Walking; running; crouching; stepping into a bathtub; putting on pants


Picking up objects dropped on the floor; lifting objects

Incline Plank

Pushing; breaking a fall; tasks requiring upper body strength

Standing Row

Pulling; lifting; carrying; opening doors and drawers

Multi-planar step-up

Walking; climbing stairs; maintaining balance; hiking

Assisted toe-taps

Walking; climbing stairs; maintaining balance

Assisted tandem stance

Walking through narrow walk-ways; maneuvering tight pantries or spaces; balance

Assisted single-leg balance

Walking; change of direction; balance

Some of these exercises can be perfect for you! However, some individuals need a "step up" or a "step down" in difficulty level. For example, for some individuals, a multi-planar step-up is too difficult (which is just stepping up and down on a step from the front, side, and pivoting to get yourself up). Those exercisers can start with the assisted toe-taps (holding on to a chair, for example). Otherwise, if the multi-planar step-up is too easy, the exercise can be progressed to a lunge instead!

If you are interested in trying some functional balance exercises for yourself, I've created a program called "BalanceFit," specializing in functional fitness for older adults. You can have access to that by clicking this link. It is a complete program from start to finish, and includes an interactive placement assessment to assess you appropriate starting level – so you are not performing exercises too easy, or too hard! They will be just right for your body. Here is a link to access BalanceFit.

Otherwise, try some of the exercises in the table! These exercises will directly translate to your everyday movements – keeping you mobile, balanced, and enjoying your life!

I also offer personal training and nutrition coaching – exclusively for older adults! If you are interested, I always start with a 15 minute free call to hear from you personally. What are your goals? What are your struggles? Click this link to schedule your free call if you're interested in working with me directly! I'm always happy to help.


About the Author

Hi! I'm Emma Mattison. I'm a NASM certified personal trainer, nutrition coach, stretch & flexibility coach, pranayama breathwork guide, holistic nerd, and lover of birds & music! I specialize in functional fitness for older adults, and those with conditions such as fibromyalgia, arthritis, and multiple sclerosis. Scientific literature is fun to me, and my goal is to make it understandable and fun for you!

I am driven to share knowledge I find fascinating & transformative with my clients, and the world. Everyone has the power to take their health into their own hands!

My love for fitness and true discovery of health started with helping my best friend – who I can now call my husband! Today, I couldn't do any of this as smoothly and enjoyably as I do now without him! Check out our YouTube, MyZeniverse! He literally edits and films everything. He's editing the next YouTube video next to me right now, as we speak! Check it out, and give it a like if it's helpful! 😊😊



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