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Well Being: Functional fitness, the best fitness of all

Evidence of my decline has been piling up in recent years. I'm not as fast, strong, agile, powerful, and supple as I once was. But I've consoled myself with the conviction that at least I'm functionally fit.

Evidence of my decline has been piling up in recent years. I'm not as fast, strong, agile, powerful, and supple as I once was. But I've consoled myself with the conviction that at least I'm functionally fit.

Now that pleasant delusion has been shattered.

The man responsible is Bruce Kelly, a trainer and coach who owns Fitness Together, a physical conditioning studio in Media. Kelly is a zealous advocate of the Functional Movement Screen, a tool for assessing body mechanics, the way your body moves and performs basic functions.

The "screen" is not an electronic device but a system for grading movements that are intrinsic to normal function. It was developed about 15 years ago by physical therapist Gray Cook and athletic trainer Lee Burton, both of Virginia. The FMS identifies limitations and asymmetries that can cause injury, reduce the benefits of training, and distort body awareness.

"If you aren't assessing, you're guessing," says Kelly, an early FMS adopter. "This provides a road map to where you want to go."

Kelly uses the FMS to evaluate new clients and measure progress. Many pro sports teams use the FMS to size up prospects and clear players after injury.

The screen consists of seven tests, each graded on a 1-to-3 scale. Kelly and his colleagues train many high school and college athletes; most score in the mid- to high teens. Kelly knows of only one person who has notched a perfect 21 - tight end Dallas Clark of the Indianapolis Colts.

Kelly has a master's degree in exercise science and has coached elite track and field athletes. Sports-specific training is a "marketing ploy," he says, since most sports draw on the same combination of primary movement patterns.

These patterns form the base of what Kelly calls the Performance Pyramid. The next level up consists of such cultivated capabilities as strength, speed, agility, and endurance. At the pyramid's peak are sports-specific skills such as a golf swing, tennis stroke, pitch delivery, or hurdling form.

"We've turned the pyramid upside down," Kelly laments. "We put too much emphasis on skills and too little on functional ability and movement, which are more important for sound physicality and health."

Kelly explains: "You may think you're fit because you can run on a treadmill for a half hour or press 150 pounds on a weight-stack machine, but if you can't bend down to pick up the paper without back pain, you're deluding yourself."

Aiding and abetting that delusion is your body, an intelligent machine that makes the necessary adjustments.

"That's part of the survival mechanism," Kelly says. "The software continues to adapt but that may not be good for your future health."

At 58, Kelly plays baseball and competitive squash. At a recent national masters squash tournament, he was pleased to see a dozen players in their 80s.

"You should be able to maintain a high functional capacity into old age," Kelly says. "Jack LaLanne was regarded as a weirdo, but he should be the norm."

How far from the norm am I? Kelly put me through the FMS, all seven tests: deep squat, shoulder range of motion, hurdle step, in-line lunge, active straight leg raise, rotational stability, trunk-stability pushup.

My total score: 11.

"Below average," Kelly said.

I failed to achieve a single 3, and in three tests - shoulder range of motion, in-line lunge, and active straight leg raise - my performance was pathetic, earning 1's. I wasn't surprised. My shoulders and left hamstring, injured multiple times, are frozen with scar tissue and racked with functional asymmetry.

"Asymmetry is the biggest red flag," Kelly said.

He urged me to have an orthopedic specialist examine my ailing right shoulder, and he suggested I try running barefoot (in moderation) to strengthen my wrecked right foot, which is affecting my gait and probably aggravating my left hamstring.

Kelly's rule of thumb is that we should do mobility work on as many days a week as the number of decades we've been alive. In my case, that means mobility exercises seven days a week.

"My warmup and mobility exercises take longer than my workout," Kelly told me. Which is probably why he's still able to scoot around the squash court.