Covering the Bases

We ask our bodies to do many different things in the course of a day. Even ordinary daily activities call on us to move, bend, squat, reach, climb, push, pull, and carry. 

Meanwhile, our cardiovascular systems are asked to boost their output whenever we need more force or speed. So doesn’t it make sense that it takes a mix of physical activities to keep this incredible, complex machine running smoothly?

Yet I keep meeting people my age who are wedded to one kind of exercise and don’t realize it’s not enough. Some do slow cardio on a treadmill or cross-trainer, and then wonder why they still have so many aches and pains. Others have embraced yoga, Zumba, or bicycling as all-around fitness solutions—which they decidedly are not. And when my gym was still open, it was full of guys who worked on upper-body strength for hours, but were so inflexible they couldn’t get anywhere close to touching their toes.

The reality is, a one-track approach to exercise won’t prevent or reverse the effects of aging in all the ways you need in order to stay physically functional. It can also cause repetitive stress injuries and physical imbalances, overtaxing some parts of the body while leaving others unchallenged.

The goal: functional fitness  
When you’re older, exercise isn’t about improving your looks or your performance in sports. It’s about being functionally fit, so you can easily handle everyday movements without pain or risk of injury.

Functional fitness is a commonsense approach because it’s geared to what matters most as we age: staying mobile and independent.

Like the broader notion of aging well, functional fitness is practical and holistic. It has five dimensions: core strength and stability, flexibility, balance, muscular strength, and cardiovascular endurance. Each one contributes to your total well-being in a different way (see below).

Functional fitness is a commonsense approach because it’s geared to what matters most as we age: staying mobile and independent. Its intensity is adaptable, so you’re not pushed to risk getting hurt by doing more than you really can. It’s also about learning to move correctly so you can avoid injuries both in and outside the gym.

And don’t worry that a five-faceted fitness program will lock you into a huge time commitment. Many exercises do double or triple duty. In fact, once you understand the five dimensions of fitness, you will know how to exercise more efficiently and get more rewards at the same time. With the right mix of activities, you can target your specific fitness issues and get tangible results in one hour a day or even less.

The trick is tailoring your program to what your body really needs, and evolving it as you progress over time. A good personal trainer or physical therapist can be a big help. That’s especially true during this coronavirus pandemic. While many gyms and fitness studios are still closed, a fitness professional can help you come up with a program you can do outdoors or at home.

Jim’s personal program
Readers and interviewers often ask me: Exactly what is it you do to stay fit at the age of 80? And how much time does it take? I’m happy to share my current program as one example of a multi-faceted approach that covers the fitness bases in one hour or less a day, six days a week. It’s based not only on what my body needs, but also on the kinds of exercise I enjoy.

Three days a week:

  • 30 minutes of movement training focused on core activation, mobility, balance and stability
  • 30 minutes of a full-body strength-building circuit, including classic exercises like push-ups, pull-ups, squats, and lunges

On three alternate days:

  • 20 minutes of high-intensity aerobic conditioning on a treadmill.
  • 20 minutes of dynamic (movement-based) stretching and mobility)—I find it especially helpful to do this in a stretching cage.

Remember, there is no one ideal program, and no one-size-fits-all routine. Each dimension of functional fitness can be addressed in multiple ways. It’s all about covering the bases in whatever ways are right for your body and right for you.

The Five Dimensions of Functional Fitness



Core Strength
& Stability

Your core—which includes your lower back, thigh, and gluteal muscles as well as your abdominals—is your body’s support structure. Core muscles are also the drivers and stabilizers for everything you do.

Concentrate on whole-body exercises, such as variations of the plank, squat, and push-up. These exercises are adaptable to almost any fitness level.


Stiff muscles, tendons, and joints limit or distort movements, leading to aches, pains and injuries.

Stretch regularly, if not daily. Do a full session at least 3 times weekly, starting with 10-15 minutes and working up to 20-30 minutes. Avoid long periods of sitting and don’t overextend, strain or jerk while stretching. Take up yoga, Pilates, or bar method.


Falls are the leading cause of fatal and non-fatal injuries among older Americans. One out of three over 65 suffers a fall each year.

Core and lower-body strength training. Stand on one foot while you brush your teeth. Practice walking heel-to-toe with one foot directly in front of the other.

Muscle Strength

By age 50, we’ve typically lost 10% of muscle mass; we lose another 15% each decade. We need lean muscle to manage daily tasks and support bones and joints.

Strength training two or three times a week, focusing on basic push, pull, and hip-hinge/squat exercises.

Cardiovascular Endurance

It lowers risks of serious disease and dementia, increases blood flow, lowers blood pressure, reduces cholesterol, boosts immune function, and helps control weight.

Get at least 30 minutes of vigorous cardio exercise three times a week, or moderate exercise five times a week. It could be brisk walking, swimming, biking, rowing, stairclimbing—anything that elevates heart rate and breathing.