WHAT WE now call fitness used to be life. You had to squat to work in the fields, you climbed ladders in the barn, you grabbed an ax to chop wood. You didn’t think about using your body; you just did.
Nowadays, most of us spend our working lives in chairs and cars. We have to plan exercise into our schedule. Even the fittest rarely have time to push themselves more than a couple hours a day.
As for the average active person? If things are going well, we squeeze in activity two to four times a week. Often, it’s routine — a three-mile run, a spin class, the elliptical with a few rounds on the weight machines at the gym, and we call it good.
Except your body was meant to do more.
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Our bodies move in seven basic ways, according to Dr. Mike Ross, a Seattle chiropractor and CrossFit coach. They are push, pull, squat, lunge, twist, flex (as in a situp) and extend (like touching your toes).
When you’re using your body to its fullest capacity, you do all these things in some fashion. But chances are, one of these movements is missing from your fitness routine.
Take squatting. Little kids do it all the time at play. In some Eastern cultures, it’s still an active mode of rest. In the U.S., however, the squat disappears as soon as we go to school, and we spend our lives sitting at 90 degrees in chairs.
Don’t believe it? Try squatting for more than 30 seconds, feet flat on the floor, and wait for the pained look to cross your face.
Failing to squat doesn’t make you less fit. But it might make you less functional.
The term functional fitness is used a lot in the fitness world, with varying interpretations. Ultimately, it’s about using your body for what it was meant for and capable of.
Says Andrew Bueno, co-owner of two Seattle CrossFit gyms, “You’re either making progress or losing it.”
The reason to consider whether you’re doing all seven movements is so you can pick up your kid without hurting your back. So you can go on a seven-mile hike without needing to turn around. So when you want to climb Mount Rainier, you can. So you have energy, every day.
Not all trainers and other fitness professionals agree the seven are the only movements, though they concur they are fundamental to how our bodies work.
The good thing is that if you have lost any of these movements, it’s not gone forever. My dad, who is in his 70s, added some daily stretches a year ago. One day, he told me he got into the crawl space. The exercises worked, he said with triumph.
If my dad can do it, so can you.
Functional fitness is about experiencing your body at its healthiest, its most energetic, and seeing what’s possible from there.
“This is what I’ve got,” Bueno says, pointing to his body. “Can I use it well?”
MIKE ROSS would like to send us all back to the farm, himself included.
In his opinion, our society has gotten soft. We ride around in cars, we don’t like to get dirty, we’re not hardy. Or in his blunt terms, “We’re wusses.”
He refers to his grandmother frequently in conversation. She grew up on a farm, hitchhiked to Seattle at 16 and became a Rosie the Riveter.
“If you were thrown on a farm, would you survive?” he asks.
The No. 1 problem is we sit all day.
We’ve lost sight of the need to add daily exercise to normal activities, like walking to the bus. Most of us neglect to push ourselves really hard — what Ross considers working out — a few times a week, possibly to the point of nausea. If you had to throw 100 bales of hay on a farm, you don’t stop just because you’re tired, he points out.
It can be easy to think Ross’ perspective is extreme. The owner of Sodo Health and Performance, he’s also a former Marine, an Ironman triathlete and a CrossFit coach. He’s a fit 47-year-old, to say the least.
But there’s something to what Ross advocates. Exercise once included activities we don’t do much any more, basic chores like moving heavy objects and mowing the lawn. These days, we have to squeeze challenging exercise into our day, such as a run. Adding workouts that push our boundaries three times a week, ones that rev our car engines to red, in his view, can sound like too much.
“We have lowered expectations and made life so easy,” he says. “You think you can get by in life by only being active and exercising.”
Let’s be clear: Ross is not trying to make everyone lift weights. A CrossFit workout might not be appropriate for his mother, for example. A run might rev your particular engine.
Consider whether you could keep up with an 8-year-old for an hour. If you can’t, maybe it’s time to do something about it.
He also thinks the current fitness culture is too focused on making fitness fancy, on getting people to strengthen or engage certain muscles. He likes to quote Lao Tzu’s “Tao Te Ching”: “The way is so simple that complicated minds cannot see it.”
People come to his office all the time who have tried intricate ways to deal with lower back pain. The simple route is training your body to do 50 back extensions in a row (lifting your arms and torso) on a machine. If you call that simple. Research shows farmers have the lowest occurrence of back pain, he says.
People are looking for a magic pill around working out, he says. There isn’t one. His advice? Do something every day; do something hard three times a week. And make sure you push, pull, squat, lunge, twist, flex, extend.
FOR TRAINER Joe DeShaw, success is a client who went hiking and a troublesome knee felt fine, or a client who went skiing and couldn’t believe how strong she felt.
They know how to use their body better, they’ve strengthened their glute muscles or they can catch their balance faster.
“When they go out and do what they like to do — their body’s changing and they’re fit — they can enjoy the experience,” he says.
DeShaw, a senior mentor trainer at Club Zum in downtown Seattle, has a functional-fitness perspective, but he looks at it more from a physical therapist’s point of view after time in a physical-therapy office.
In addition to the seven movements, DeShaw would add balance, which helps protect the knee joints and strengthens feet.
But rather than look at any particular movement, he likes to work with clients on the four planes of movement based on the human anatomy.
Most people are proficient in some planes, but not in others. DeShaw believes chronic injuries come from the ones we’re not so great at.
The four planes are forward and back (running, swimming), side to side (jumping jacks and side bends), rotational (kayaking or golf), and a combination of rotation and diagonal movement, such as twisting around to pick something up off the floor.
DeShaw, who keeps a close eye on his students’ form, wants people to consider how they move every day to do tasks. In one class he leads, he does movements that require rotation, reaches and twists.
Clients frequently come to him with tense shoulders and a weak mid-back, a hunch caused by sitting all day. He focuses on their spine and strengthening their backs. When he sees people who struggle with balance, also common, he focuses on hip and glute strength.
DeShaw, a former football player, has had his own knee and shoulder injuries. There are days when the body’s not ready to push, he says, and days when it’s time to push.
He wants his clients to feel “their body’s prepared for what they need to do, from sitting on a toilet to climbing a mountain.”
ANDREW BUENO spends most days training people on weights, box jumps, pullups and other CrossFit skills. With his mom, he tries to get her to go on a walk.
If he’s home and she drops something, she’ll call him to pick it up for her. He wants her to do it herself. He doesn’t want her to go down the path his grandma did; she got dementia and was wheelchair-bound.
“It’s not a fun way of living.”
As a kid growing up in Bremerton, Bueno admired Bruce Lee. He wanted to move like him, and did gymnastics and took martial arts. He also did wrestling, and track and field.
All those activities showed him different ways to move. Bueno, 28, trains people at his two gyms, Foundation CrossFit and CrossFit SLU, where he sees people of all fitness levels. He believes it’s important to get people to do activities outside of what they’re used to, including outside the CrossFit skill set. If someone gets really great at double-unders on the jump rope, he’ll tell them to double Dutch.
Bueno had one client who was a huge University of Washington Husky fan. The 67-year-old couldn’t move well and had to use the railing on the busy ramps at Husky Stadium; he was embarrassed to be that guy. His son persuaded him to train with Bueno.
Bueno first worked with him on getting strong enough to sit properly; he had his client lower down until he hovered just above a chair, stand back up, and repeat.
His client was negative at the beginning. Bueno had to work with him slowly, and also pushed him. Once he reached 10 reps, Bueno would ask him to do 30.
Within three months, he beat his son up the ramp at Husky Stadium, while holding a tray.
“You could see it in his face, carrying himself a bit bigger,” Bueno says.
If you want to go for a walk, run stairs or do yoga, Bueno wants you to be able to do it. Will you be amazing at it? Maybe not. But you can choose to take it on.
Some people tell him they’re afraid to come to his gym and fail. The great thing about the workouts is that people fail every day, he says, adding, “We don’t care about failure. We care about learning.”
Bueno has fun working with athletes who come to cross-train. But it’s even more satisfying to work with people who have mainly sat in an office and never done a pullup. He loves the sense of accomplishment when they get their first one.
Personally, he keeps active because he wants to have energy in the morning. He wants to be the person who survives a zombie apocalypse. He wants to be the 110-year-old grandpa who dies bungee jumping because the gear wasn’t checked.
“We train for life,” he says. “For now, for tomorrow, for the end of life.”
WE’VE SKIRTED around the topic, but there is an unofficial eighth movement — your bowels, Ross says. None of the trainers bludgeoned me with their particular way of eating, but diet is a major consideration for health. I’ve spent enough time on nutrition to know they would tell you to eat real food, not the stuff that comes in packages.
If you want to get started on that path, consider an anti-inflammatory diet or eat Paleo, if only to deepen your awareness of what you eat every day.
Bueno also alluded to one more element of fitness that I consider primary — having fun. Yes, fun.
Until I started doing yoga regularly nine years ago, I was active and not strong; I always had a period of suffering and soreness when I tried something new, despite being young and healthy. I’d get discouraged.
Through a regular yoga practice, I’ve gotten strong enough to bear my own body weight, built core strength and developed body awareness.
Initially, yoga freed me up to feel good on the first hike and cross-country ski of every season. These days, it has freed me to try new activities all the time. I’m never amazing at anything. But I can take on the basics and get through a new class, no matter how tough.
For the first time in my life, I am durable.
Now, new activities are fun. I love trying classes, especially ones that kick my butt. It’s exciting to test my strength. I am gleeful in dance classes, even when I stumble or screw up the moves.
Over the past year, I realized my biggest weakness among the seven was pulling. I’ve added pullups and rowing, and heavier weights for strength training. I spend more time in resting squats.
Some months, I take on the eighth movement. Ahem.
I have discovered that if I’m strong, activity is fun. If an activity is fun, it doesn’t feel like something to cross off my to-do list. Exercise and working out have become a way of life that is happy, healthy, energizing. The physical freedom has translated to my life overall, and I am more willing to take a chance and try new things far outside my norm.
I’ve learned I never know what I’m good at until I try.
“If you have a body,” Bueno says, “you’re an athlete.”
Nicole Tsong teaches yoga at studios around Seattle. Read her blog at papercraneyoga.com. Email: email@example.com. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific NW magazine staff photographer.