Walking the Talk

As a primary care physician preaching the gospel of nutrition and exercise, I have always tried to follow my own advice. Particularly this year, with my overseas adventure rapidly approaching, I have been ramping up the fitness quota, and am now pushing six training days weekly. Nobody as yet has mistaken me for Thor, God of Thunder. There's always hope, though; after all, myopia is a common disorder. Nonetheless, despite the general public's oversight in this regard, I think I'm in pretty good shape. At least, I did until yesterday.

Marilyn Gansel, a personal trainer with studios in Stamford and Kent, CT, graciously invited me for a one-on-one with her in her Kent facility. Marilyn is multi-degreed and is currently working on her PhD in sports psychology. Marilyn and I have talked with each other on many occasions about her functional approach to training, and she offered me the chance to experience it first-hand.

A Different Path to Fitness

Before we get to the embarrassing parts, first a word about functional exercise. Traditionally, strength training has been performed by isolated muscles, using benches, barbells, dumbells or machines. The exercises will work one set of muscles at a time; for example, the classic bench press, which is used to strengthen the muscles of the chest.

Functional exercise, on the other hand, uses more complex motions with weights in a variety of forms when additional resistance is needed. For example, at one point Marilyn had me doing lunges off of a step, while at the same time raising a medicine ball above my head and in front of my chest.

For fairly obvious reasons, these exercises, and the benefits they give you, translate much more readily into our day to day activities and the sports in which we participate.

And for the majority of my patients, it is these exercises, not the leg-curl machine at the gym or the physical therapist's office, that will provide the greatest benefit.

Sure, following orthopedic surgery, the isolated, single-joint, single-muscle approach is the way to go. But most of my patients with musculoskeletal complaints suffer from more chronic soft-tissue injuries. In these cases, functional exercises are leaps and bounds ahead of traditional techniques.

And for people whose disorders affect their sense of balance or coordination, training such as this can be especially helpful.

Indeed, as I found out, functional exercise training can provide benefits for those seeking to improve their overall fitness, a goal I try to impress on all of my patients, regardless of disorder.

Finding the Weak Spots

It took Marilyn all of 15 minutes to isolate some extraordinarily weak areas of which I was utterly oblivious. Because my strength training routine has focused on the larger muscle groups, some of the smaller muscles used to control posture and stabilize movement have gone somewhat neglected. Strengthening them will only improve my performance in my two primary activities, Aikido and cycling.

But as with any weak area, the path to improvement is by incorporating those exercises into my workout routine.

To this end, Marilyn showed me proper form and timing for the exercises. Although her studio is equipped with high-end exercise equipment, many functional exercises can be performed with low-tech aids. Form, posture and timing are key, however, which makes her one-on-one instruction imperative.

And even working at the slower pace required by my introduction to these exercises, I could tell that the possibilities for cardiovascular conditioning are clearly present, making Marilyn's methodology a very balanced approach.

At the end of my hour with Marilyn, I could feel that I had gotten a good, solid workout. More than that, I had discovered new ways to boost my fitness, not necessarily in a win-the-swimsuit-contest way, but in an improve-my-overall-health way.

And that's something we could all use. Regardless of your fitness level, I highly recommend you get in touch with Marilyn. Her website is www.fitnessmatters.com.