Functional Training for Health Conditions To Improve Fitness


Even if you have a health condition, such as asthma, diabetes, hypertension, arthritis, or are obese, you can attain your fitness goals. Get ready, because I’m going to share some of my training secrets with you.

No matter what, make sure to hire a trainer to get you started on the right track. Once a trainer has helped you hone your skills, many of the types of exercises I’m going to discuss can be done at home using some ingenuity and a good book.

I train members of special populations, mostly. People like you. While it is true that more thought has to be put into designing programs for you, rarely is the knowledge and skill of the kind that a certified trainer has not already been exposed to. Most trainers who work with special populations only accept clients who have illnesses with which they can handle. Most know, for instance, that people who have emphysema need to exercise in a clinical environment and won’t accept them. We were told so while working toward our certifications.

So what do you need to do to get started? First, you need a certified trainer. That means pick a trainer, not a facility, especially do not just pick any gym, like the one that’s nearest your house. Why? Few gyms have trainers who are either certified to work with members of special populations or ever have. Most of their members are relatively young and healthy. You need to look for experience, since training members of special populations is not a continuing education requirement. What you need to make sure of are:

  • The trainer is certified. Preferably by a reputable organization.
  • The trainer keeps up on the latest research and exercise techniques.
  • The trainer has experience training members of special populations.

Oops! Instead of experience training members of “special populations”, shouldn’t that read, “Members who have my particular illness?” No. That was not a typo. People who are obese, have asthma, diabetes, hypertension, arthritis, or who are senior citizens (not athletes) can all be trained pretty much the same way. Few modifications are needed.

Gripping may not always be safe for those who have osteoarthritis, and neither they nor those with rheumatoid arthritis may always be able to grip. So a good trainer would know how to modify or know when to discard various exercises or maybe even entire modalities like cycling, step aerobics and resistance training, when necessary.

That’s what I do in my practice. Other trainers, who train members of special populations, do it, too. Training for members of special populations tends to be functional training and we tend to design training to improve general fitness. Our clients are also similar to their healthier cousins in one way. They are deconditioned. The elements of general fitness are:

  1. Body composition.
  2. Cardiovascular endurance.
  3. Muscular strength.
  4. Muscular endurance.
  5. Flexibility

Functional training is a conditioning method that usually emphasizes compound exercises. Compound exercises forces us to use multiple movements and, therefore, muscles. Four pillars of movement are emphasized in functional training:

  1. Standing balance. Single-leg Romanian deadlifts or chair squats are examples of pillar one exercises.
  2. Multiplanar movements. Squats and lunges are often the cornerstone of the second pillar.
  3. Push and pull exercises, pushups and rows are pillar three exercises.
  4. Pillar four exercisesare rotational and typically involve the core muscles. An example exercise is a Russian twist.

The movements are called “functional” because they mimic the way we normally move or help us to move the way we normally do in real life. We tend to move in an adaptable fashion.

In my practice, I also emphasize body weight exercises because they can be functional and not require any equipment. That makes it easy to do the exercises at home and brings down the cost of fitness considerably. Plus, everyone is at least familiar with body weight exercises like sit-ups, pushups, squats, lunges, planks, etc. There are hundreds of body weight exercises and each week I rotate some of the exercises to help my clients avoid plateaus and boredom. You can, too. Just do an exercise at least long enough to get the proper form down so that you do not get injured and so that you work the correct muscles or joints.

Body weight exercises are effective exercises for all populations, but are especially beneficial for members of special populations. If you have diabetes, you would exercise just like people who have hypertension do, for instance. That means no heavy weights. Weightlifting, especially heavy weightlifting, raises blood pressure. If you have asthma or are obese, maybe you could lift heavy weights, but you might find that you lack the cardiovascular endurance to do so.

Muscular endurance exercises may be the only way for you to build cardiovascular endurance if you have asthma or obesity or are a senior citizen. So lifting only the load, or amount of weight, that you can for one to two sets of 16 to 20 repetitions is enough. To keep your heart rate up, work as fast as you safely can and keep breaks to between 30 and 90 seconds.

But why bother buying weights? You can do 16 pushups to build up your chest, triceps and core. Just start pushing off of the wall first, if you have to, and then as you improve, move downward. Push off a table, then finally the floor.

I also incorporate yoga, functional Pilates, and Tai Chi into my practice. All three modalities can also be functional and are very adaptable. Each emphasizes relaxation of the mind and body. Each approaches that goal differently. Those differences are important for members of special populations.

Yoga focuses on flexibility and static balance. Pilates is more about dynamic mobility and core strength while Tai Chi is “meditation in motion”, a martial art and, to that end, emphasizes dynamic balance. Because of its emphases on flexibility and static balance, you may find yoga to be more difficult to do if you are obese or have arthritis. Because there is movement in them, Pilates and Tai Chi are faster than yoga, but they too can be an integral part of a flexibility, balance, and strength development program. Keep in mind that not all moves in any modality are suitable for all populations, not even the ones in yoga, Pilates, and Tai Chi. That’s why whenever you switch to working in a new modality, you should begin with an instructor.

People who are asthmatic, who have an arthritic back, are obese, have hypertension or diabetes should not, and in some cases, cannot, do the yoga “Boat” exercise. Flexing their bodies in the way that is necessary places stress on the spine and abdomen and can raise blood pressure.

You will benefit from functional training in other ways as well. Not only does functional training improve balance and flexibility, functional training also:

  • Reduces your chance of injury.
  • Improves your reaction time.
  • Helps you exercise by requiring less time than traditional methods.
  • Reduces the chance you will burn out, because it targets overall fitness and utilizes a variety of training methods.
  • Provides playful imaginative and integrative training environments.
  • Burns more calories in less time because you use more muscle mass.

This just goes to show that there’s a fitness method for everyone. So, what are you waiting for? Start looking for a certified trainer today and get moving!

I agree to have my personal information transfered to MailChimp ( more information )
Join over 175,000 ShapeFit subscribers who are receiving our free weekly fitness newsletter and learn how you can build more muscle, burn off body fat and get into the best shape of your life!
We hate spam! Your email address will never be sold or shared with anyone. You can unsubscribe at anytime.

About Author

Brenda Gaines Hunter

Brenda Gaines Hunter specializes in functional training for deconditioned populations, recreational athletes, senior citizens, people struggling with obesity, diabetes, asthma and arthritis. See my profile page for more information!

Leave A Reply