The Cooper Institute

Founded in 1970 by the "Father of Aerobics"
Kenneth H. Cooper MD, MPH


Functional Circuit Training Benefits for Older Adults

Posted in
Live well

Thursday, May 15, 2014


While we all have different goals and priorities throughout life, older adults would all probably agree that a big priority for them is to remain capable of doing activities of daily living (ADL) or in other words, being able to maintain independent living while staying free of falls. Oh and we mustn’t forget, being able to remain social! With this in mind, researchers wanted to test1 a well-designed circuit that required no specialized equipment and stations that would improve mobility, strength, flexibility, and balance, but also stimulate cognitive function or a psychological benefit. Participants were well supervised to ensure correct form and an appropriate intensity was used throughout the circuit. This is important because other studies failed to find significant results across all outcome measures due to older subject’s inability to perform exercises correctly in the absence of feedback and/or their inability to sustain an appropriate intensity throughout an unsupervised exercise session.


A total of 119 men and women subjects were selected to participate in a circuit with 10 different upper- and lower-body exercises performed under time constraints. This was done 3 times per week for 12 consecutive weeks. Participants also wore a heart rate monitor and were instructed to check their intensity periodically. The desired training heart rate was 70–80% of predicted maximum heart rate. Subjects were taught how to use the Borg scale of Perceived Exertion (13–14) also. The investigators showed that subjects were at or just below 70% of their target heart rate during the functional exercise circuit. Each station was 60 seconds and time was called out at 15, 30, 45, and 60 seconds. Initially, repetitions were limited and gradually increased in week 2-3.

Functional Exercise Circuit Stations

The following were the 10 stations:

1. Wall-Ball Dynamic Squat – While leaning against the ball, the subject flexed the knees, trying to attain a 90° bend before returning to the straight-legged starting position.

2. Single Leg Balance – The subject balanced on 1 leg while standing on a foam cushion. This task will was repeated on both legs, approximately 30 seconds per leg.

3. Cross-Legged Seated Torso Stretching – Subjects were on the floor with a torso rotation added after leaning forward.

4. Modified Push-Up – Subjects performed either a kneeling push-up or wall push-up.

5. Crunch – Subjects crossed the arms against the chest and knees bent so the feet were flat on the floor. The subject tucked the chin against the sternal notch and raised the back from the floor as far as possible while, at the same time, contracting the abdominal muscles.

6. Superman – While lying prone, subjects lifted the thighs and chest off the ground and held this position for 1 second.

7. V-Sit Stretch – The subject assumed a seated position with the legs outstretched, the back straight. Alternating between legs, the subject leaned toward an outstretched leg as far as possible. Upon stretching to a comfortable limit, the subject paused and held the stretch for 5–10 seconds before returning to the start position.

8. Stretch and Balance – Standing with feet shoulder width apart and arms at the sides of the body, the subject reached overhead with the right arm while simultaneously abducting the left leg such that that foot left the floor.

9. Star Exercise – Six rubber cones (height = 0.07 m) were positioned in a circle around the subject, with each cone approximately 0.094 m from the subject. While balancing on 1 leg, the subject flexed the knee, reached down, and touched the top of a cone. The subject returned to the upright posture (starting position) before attempting to touch another cone.

10. Weight Transfer – The subject picked up tote bags, one in each hand, representing approximately 20% of his or her body weight. With the arms at the sides, the subject walked around the outside of the exercise circuit and through or around obstacles that included stepping over barriers (there were 3 to choose from: 4.7, 7.0, and 9.4 cm), reversing direction, and walking backward while carrying the tote bags.

Pre-testing: Immediately following physical examination, subjects completed a Medical Outcomes Study Health Survey (SF-36) and a battery of tests that targeted mobility (e.g., sit to stand, get up and go, timed walk), flexibility (sit and reach), and balance.

Post-testing Results: After the 12-week Circuit Training, paired t-tests detected significant differences in pre- and post-tests for get up and go ( p 50.000), standing reach ( p 5 0.000), sit and reach ( p 50.000), self-reports of physical functioning ( p 5 0.001), pain ( p 5 0.001), vitality ( p 5 0.001), and doctor visits.

Discussion: This study sought to evaluate the relative value of a functional exercise circuit as a means of promoting mobility and self-perceived health in an elderly population (74 years average age). Given the nature of the circuit (e.g., directional changes, obstacles) and the time limit imposed at each station, researchers speculate that a progressive overload was produced that manifested itself as improved mobility.

Results snapshot:

  • Improved mobility
  • Improved stability
  • Reduced fall risk by 12.9%
  • Improved hip and lower-back flexion
  • Perceptions of improved physical functioning
  • Perceptions of improved vitality
  • Perceptions of reduced pain
  • 83% Adherence
  • No injuries suffered
  • No special equipment needed
Practical Application:  

As the research article stated, “A practitioner may find that a functional exercise circuit can be both challenging and beneficial for an elderly subject wishing to improve physical functioning and mobility. In addition, because the functional exercise circuit includes a series of movement patterns that must be produced under varying conditions (i.e., space negotiations, directional changes, level changes), the subject is afforded cognitive stimulation. Still, it is unclear at this time whether better results could be expected from a functional exercise circuit like the one employed here when compared to traditional exercise interventions. Nevertheless, considering that none of the subjects in this study was injured and that the participation is both time- and cost-effective, it seems logical to consider a functional exercise circuit an alternative form of exercise for older adults.”

For more information on exercise in the older adult, check out some of our previous blogs:

And if you are interested in working with older adults, our next 2-day course focusing on exercise and the older adult is being held June 18th and 19th. This course will take you through the process of understanding age-related conditions, assessing abilities, and determining an appropriate exercise prescription. The demand for fitness professionals trained to work with older adults continues to increase as the population ages so come join us in June!

1Whitehurst, M. (2005). THE BENEFITS OF A FUNCTIONAL EXERCISE CIRCUIT. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 3, 647-651.