Washtub abs

Most of us like to believe that we’re physically fit, or at least fit enough to get through our everyday lives without serious injury.

It’s easy to maintain that belief when everyday life involves nothing more strenuous than oozing off the sofa and going to the kitchen for more pork rinds. But once in a while, we’re required to actually do something physical -- such as lifting luggage into an overhead bin or tying our shoes -- and the resulting aches and pains prove that we’re kidding ourselves.

I exercise almost every day, walking miles on our Dreadmill and lifting tiny dumbbells (by their ears). But if I try something physically demanding, such as yardwork, I quickly find that I’m not fit at all.

My wife and I moved a seven-foot-tall palm tree from one area of our property to another. It took a couple of hours of surprisingly hard work, including a lot of shoveling and squatting and cursing. I expected to be fine after recovering from the initial heatstroke and mud bath, but hahaha on that. The next morning, every muscle between knees and chest, including some I didn’t know I had, rose up in revolt. For days after, I shuffled around the house like a geriatric German shepherd with bad hips. Even my fat hurt.

Clearly, my time on the Dreadmill hadn’t prepared me for actual physical labor. I might be fit enough to walk a couple of miles without keeling over, but I was unprepared for digging and crouching and yanking on stubborn tree roots.

Which brings us to a recent study by the American Council on Exercise. The ACE study encourages older folks to do “functional” exercise that emphasizes moving muscles and joints together in ways that mimic real-life needs, rather than just lifting weights or walking, which use the same isolated muscles over and over.

(Anybody else think it’s more than a coincidence that ACE is also the name of a brand of bandages? Maybe that’s just me.)

The study, done at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, used 48 volunteers between the ages of 58 and 78. All already participated in a fitness program because of various health problems related to cheese consumption. (Note to Wisconsin readers: Just kidding about the cheese!)

The researchers randomly assigned participants to a group doing functional exercises or to a control group that stuck with “a traditional exercise program of walking and aerobic dance,” according to an ACE press release. The 12 functional exercises, performed three times a week, included moves such as “wall push-ups, lunge and chop, and squat with diagonal reach.”

At the end of the month-long study, the researchers found that those who went through the functional fitness program showed greater improvements in lower-body strength, upper-body strength, cardio-respiratory endurance, agility, balance and shoulder flexibility than the control group.

Participants in the functional exercise group celebrated their gains by beating up the aerobic dancers. (Kidding again!)

ACE said it was hoped that the study would encourage people to incorporate functional strength training into their workout programs so they can “safely and effectively perform their various activities of daily living.”

Good advice. I plan to try some of these functional exercises to see if they help strengthen my muscles and increase my flexibility. Perhaps they’ll even prepare me to do physical labor, assuming the occasion ever arises again.

For sure, the next time my wife suggests that we transplant a tree, I’m doing the “lunge and chop.”

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