Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2005, 19(3), 647–651
? 2005 National Strength & Conditioning Association
THE BENEFITS OF A FUNCTIONAL EXERCISE CIRCUIT
FOR OLDER ADULTS
MICHAEL A. WHITEHURST,1BEVERLY L. JOHNSON,2CHERIE M. PARKER,2LEE E. BROWN,3AND
ALLISON M. FORD1
1Department of Exercise Science and Health Promotion, Florida Atlantic University, Davie, Florida 33314;
2DeVos-Blum Family YMCA of Boynton Beach, Boynton Beach, Florida 33435;3FACSM Division of Kinesiology
and Health Promotion, California State University, Fullerton, California 92834.
ABSTRACT. Whitehurst, M.A., B.L. Johnson, C.M. Parker, L.E.
Brown, and A.M. Ford. The benefits of a functional exercise cir-
cuit for older adults. J. Strength Cond. Res. 19(3):647–651.
2005.—The physical benefits of a functional exercise circuit are
not well known in an elderly population. The purpose of this
study was to evaluate the effect of a functional exercise circuit
on mobility and perceived health in the elderly. Subjects were
119 men and women (aged 74 [?4.2] years) who received pre-
and posttests of mobility (e.g., sit to stand, get up and go, timed
walk), flexibility (sit and reach), and balance (standing reach)
and who completed the Medical Outcomes Study 36-Item Short-
Form Health Survey (SF-36). A supervised functional exercise
circuit that included 10 different upper- and lower-body exercis-
es performed under time constraints was performed 3 times per
week for 12 consecutive weeks. Paired t-tests showed significant
differences at posttest for the get up and go (p ? 0.001), standing
reach (p ? 0.001), sit and reach (p ? 0.001), and selected items
from the SF-36, including physical functioning (p ? 0.001), pain
(p ? 0.001), vitality (p ? 0.001), and number of doctor visits (p
? 0.001). A functional exercise circuit such as the one employed
in this study may offer promise as an effective means of pro-
moting mobility and perceived health in older adults.
KEY WORDS. enhanced mobility, perceived health
have reported using a functional approach in
which movement patterns common to activities of daily
living (ADL) were employed as the primary exercise stim-
ulus. The idea that exercise should be strict linear move-
ments typical of resistance machines and free weights
may be impractical for many older adults. Rather, a func-
tional exercise, particularly one performed in a circuit
fashion, may be well suited to older persons wishing to
improve function and mobility.
Using an exercise circuit to induce physiological stress
in an effort to promote health-related fitness is not new.
For example, circuit weight training has been shown to
improve strength and, to a lesser extent, cardiorespira-
tory endurance in young, healthy subjects (8, 19). Simi-
larly, circuit or workstation exercise interventions have
been used to improve function and physical work capacity
in stroke patients (4, 12) and cardiac patients (5). In a
recent study, Nelson et al. (13) exposed older adults to a
home-based exercise program that included progressive
resistance exercise and mobility challenges. Nelson and
colleagues found significant improvements in dynamic
hile resistance exercise has been used exten-
sively during the past decade to promote
strength, muscle hypertrophy, and mobility
in the elderly (6, 7, 10, 17), few if any studies
balance, whereas strength and gait speed did not differ
between exercise and control groups. Although the au-
thors concluded that a home-based exercise program of-
fers benefits, it could be argued that their failure to find
significant results across all outcome measures resulted
from the older subject’s inability to perform exercises cor-
rectly in the absence of feedback and/or sustain an ap-
propriate intensity throughout the exercise session.
Our intention was to develop a functional exercise cir-
cuit that required movement patterns and mobility chal-
lenges common to ADL. In doing so, we sought to provide
a supervised exercise setting and effectively eliminate the
need for specialized equipment while providing physically
demanding exercise performed in a group setting. We hy-
pothesized that the functional exercise circuit would pro-
vide an exercise stimulus suitable for improving function-
al mobility in older adults. In addition, considering that
a psychologic benefit is often attributed to regular exer-
cise (1), we examined the influence of the functional ex-
ercise circuit on perceived health. Again, consistent with
other forms of exercise, we hypothesized that the benefits
of the functional exercise circuit would extend beyond the
This study sought to determine whether elderly subjects
could improve their mobility and perceived health from a
nontraditional functionally (i.e., movement patterns com-
mon to ADL) based exercise program. This study was ap-
proved by Florida Atlantic University’s Institutional Re-
view Board for Human Subjects Research. Subjects were
119 (aged 73 [?4.6] years) volunteers from Palm Beach
County, Florida. Upon phone inquiry, subjects were
scheduled for a physical examination (an informed con-
sent and a detailed medical history were also obtained).
Subjects whose medical history and/or physical exami-
nation showed more than 2 major coronary heart disease
risk factors and/or who presented with an unstable con-
dition (e.g., heart disease, high blood pressure, abnormal
levels of blood lipids) within the last 12 months and/or
who had mobility issues were referred to their physician
for follow-up (n ? 3) and deemed unfit for participation
in this study.
Immediately following the physical examination, sub-
jects completed the Medical Outcomes Study 36-Item
Short-Form 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
648WHITEHURST, JOHNSON, PARKER ET AL.
Layout of functional exercise circuit.
(standing reach). The SF-36 (numeric responses, e.g., 1 ?
all of the time; 6 ? none of the time) dealt with general
health, physical functioning, mental state, social activity,
pain, and vitality. Subjects were also asked to provide the
number of falls, emergency room visits, hospitalizations,
and doctor visits, where pretest was defined as 12 months
prior to their participation in this study. All tests were
repeated within 1 week following the conclusion of the 12
weeks of continuous exercise.
The sit-to-stand maneuver was electronically timed and
required the subject to rise from a seated to a standing
position, without the aid of the arms, as quickly as pos-
sible. The best of 3 trials was recorded. A detailed de-
scription of this test may be found elsewhere (18).
The get-up-and-go test required the subject to rise
from a seated position, walk 8 ft (2.44 m), turn, and re-
turn to the seated position as quickly as possible (14).
The timed walk test was an aerobic endurance test
lasting 6 minutes. Briefly, the subject walked a rectan-
gular course (13.4 ? 3.35 m) for 6 minutes, covering as
much distance as possible (14).
Flexibility was measured in the sit-and-reach position
using a standard sit-and-reach box, and the best of 3 tri-
als was recorded (9).
The standing-reach test was a field test of balance and
provided a measure of the subject’s stability and risk of
falling. Subjects stood with the shoulder of the dominant
arm next to a wall. Affixed to the wall was a slide. The
start position was defined as the subject grasping the
handle of the slide mechanism, arm in front of the body
and parallel to the floor. The subject moved the slide
mechanism forward by leaning forward as far as possible
or just prior to the point that a step was necessary to
avoid falling. The distance from the start position (mea-
sured from the handle on the slide mechanism) to the
stopping point was recorded. Each subject received 3 tri-
als, and the greatest reach was recorded. All tests were
administered in the order described.
Functional Exercise Circuit—Overview
A functional exercise circuit was performed 3 times per
week for 12 consecutive weeks. The circuit consisted of 10
exercises or stations performed consecutively, each last-
ing 60 seconds, with 3 circuits completed each session.
During the 60 seconds, participants were able to complete
10–30 repetitions before transitioning (15–20 seconds) to
the next station. A total of 15–30 subjects participated in
each session. Subjects were monitored at all times to en-
sure safety and adherence to good form and were in-
structed to avoid the Valsalva maneuver while perform-
ing the different exercises in the circuit. Subjects were
not allowed to complete more than several repetitions at
each station of the circuit for the first week. More repe-
titions and hence difficulty were introduced slowly during
subsequent weeks (weeks 2–3). A timer called out times
(e.g., 15, 30, 45 seconds) during the 60-second interval.
Finally, subjects wore a heart rate monitor while exercis-
ing and were instructed to monitor their intensity by
checking their monitor periodically (training heart rate ?
70–80% predicted maximum heart rate) as well as using
the Borg scale (13–14). Periodic inspections by the inves-
tigators showed that subjects were at or just below 70%
of their THR during the functional exercise circuit. Of the
36 possible sessions, subjects averaged slightly more than
30 sessions or 83% of all possible sessions.
While the stations of the circuit required specific
movement patterns, the circuit was designed to empha-
size level changes, directional changes, and the negoti-
ating of obstacles. In this way, the circuit was more than
just a repetitive process. Rather, the configuration of the
circuit and its inherent obstacles placed cognitive and at-
tentional demands on the subjects at all times. The sta-
tions were labeled by number and name while the sub-
jects rotated through the circuit numerically (1–2 . . . .10–
1). See Figure 1 for a layout of the exercise circuit.
Functional Exercise Circuit
Wall Exercise. The subject stood with his or her back to
the wall. A large rubber ball (1.06 m) was placed between
the midback and the wall. While leaning against the ball,
the subject flexed the knees, trying to attain a 90? bend
before returning to the straight-legged starting position.
Single Leg Balance. With a foam cushion (5.08 cm)
positioned near a wall, the subject balanced on 1 leg while
standing on the foam cushion. This task will was repeated
on both legs, approximately 30 seconds per leg.
Cross-Legged Seated Torso. The subject assumed a
seated cross-legged position (back straight) on the floor to
perform a series of 4 gentle stretches. With the arms out-
stretched and the hands resting on the knees, the first
FUNCTIONAL EXERCISE CIRCUIT AND THE ELDERLY
movement included bending forward at the waist and
throughout the spine, in order to move the head toward
the floor, and then returning to the straight-back posi-
tion. The second and third movements required the sub-
ject to maintain the straight back while rotating the torso
position (arms were allowed to follow the torso but did
not provide assistance) as far as possible in one direction
and then in the opposite direction. The fourth and final
movement required the subject to place the hands behind
the buttocks for support while arching the back such that
the chest moved toward the ceiling. Each position was
held for 3–10 seconds and repeated several times in se-
Modified Push-Up. From a kneeling position, the
hands were placed on the floor, shoulder width apart, and
arms straight. The goal was to lower the chest to the floor
and return to the straight-arm position. Subjects who
could not perform the modified push-up performed wall
push-ups in which their feet were shoulder width and
parallel and as far from the wall as could be tolerated
while they were still able to flex the arms and move the
chest as close to the wall as possible.
Crunch. While lying on the back, arms crossed 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 such
that the back rounded and the chest moved toward the
bent knees. The subject held the upright position for 1
count before returning the back to the floor and repeating
Superman. While lying facedown on the floor with
arms outstretched overhead, the subject lifted the thighs
and chest off the floor simultaneously. At the top, the sub-
ject paused for 1 count before lowering the chest and
thighs to the floor.
V-Sit. The subject assumed a seated position with the
legs outstretched, the back straight (some subjects placed
their hands on either side of the hips to assist in main-
taining a straight back), and the feet spread 0.6–1.2 m,
depending on individual capability. 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 be-
fore returning to the start position. The subject then
stretched toward the other leg. This process was repeated
several times for each leg.
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 simultaneous-
ly abducting the left leg such that that foot left the floor.
In the outstretched position, the arm and leg formed a
diagonal line that was held for as long as 10 seconds. The
same action was repeated for the other side of the body.
These movements were repeated 2–4 times per side. Sub-
jects were allowed to hold a chair with the uninvolved
hand for support.
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. It should be pointed out that the sub-
jects used opposing limbs (e.g., right leg as the base and
left arm to touch the cone). Additionally, the subject was
oriented in a constant direction during the task. This
meant that touching a cone in the rear required bending
and flexing the knee and blindly reaching back. The long-
term goal for each subject was for him or her to touch the
6 cones with all combinations of balanced leg and out-
reached arm. However, not all subjects could touch all
cones at all times without temporarily losing balance and
having to temporarily stabilize themselves with the other
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 car-
rying the tote bags.
Mean and standard deviation were calculated for each
variable. Paired t-tests were used to determine differenc-
es over time for each variable. The p ? 0.05 was used. All
data analysis was completed using SPSS version 11.0
(SPSS Inc., Chicago, IL).
As shown in Table 1, paired t-tests detected significant
differences in pre- and posttests for get up and go (p ?
0.000), standing reach (p ? 0.000), sit and reach (p ?
0.000), self-reports of physical functioning (p ? 0.001),
pain (p ? 0.001), vitality (p ? 0.001), and doctor visits
(p ? 0.000). The initial alpha level of p ? 0.05 was cor-
rected (0.05 per number of paired t-tests or 18).
This study sought to evaluate the relative value of a func-
tional exercise circuit as a means of promoting mobility
and perceived health in an elderly population. On the ba-
sis of the results obtained in the get-up-and-go test, it
appears that the functional exercise circuit intervention
promoted mobility. Although not significant (0.006), the
timed walk test, indicative of cardiorespiratory endur-
ance and mobility, improved by 7.4%. These findings are
consistent with other studies in which mobility improved
in an elderly population following exercise training (6, 7,
10). However, unlike previous studies, the current study
employed movements common to ADL, with resistance
provided by the subject’s body weight. Given the nature
of the circuit (e.g., directional changes, obstacles) and the
time limit imposed at each station, we speculate that a
progressive overload was produced that manifested itself
as improved mobility.
Standing reach, a field measure of stability and fall
risk, improved 12.9%. This improvement may be a prod-
uct of the dynamic nature of the training regimen. A dy-
namic exercise intervention in the form of agility training
was employed in a recent investigation by Liu-Ambrose
et al. (11). Using body sway as a measure of fall risk,
these authors reported a 29.6 and 30.6% reduction in
sway following agility and resistance training. Given that
there was no significant difference in body sway following
agility or resistance training, it could be argued that the
more functionally based agility exercise is at least as good
as traditional resistance exercise at reducing the risk of
650WHITEHURST, JOHNSON, PARKER ET AL.
TABLE 1. Changes in mobility and perceived health following 12 weeks of functional exercise (mean ? SD).
Get up and go
Sit to stand
Standing reach (m)
Sit and reach (m)
0.248 ? 0.14
57.5 ? 21.4
0.18 ? 0.64
Emergency department visits
Number of medications
3.87 ? 2.6
* p ? 0.002.
7.25 ? 2.0
0.74 ? 1.5
0.386 ? 0.06
8.1 ? 2.2
0.289 ? 0.13
72.7 ? 20.7
73.9 ? 34.9
73.2 ? 20.9
70.1 ? 17.2
63.5 ? 20.0
90.0 ? 17.0
83.1 ? 30.3
79.5 ? 16.2
0.08 ? 0.30
0.03 ? 0.18
0.01 ? 0.09
0.91 ? 0.87
3.68 ? 2.8
7.92 ? 2.1
0.78 ? 0.65
0.3432 ? 0.08
7.5 ? 1.8
66.5 ? 23.2
67.2 ? 38.6
66.8 ? 21.1
68.9 ? 18.6
85.3 ? 19.4
79.2 ? 35.2
76.0 ? 15.3
0.11 ? 0.34
0.08 ? 0.27
1.34 ? 1.1
falling in older subjects. Using another form of dynamic
exercise, Tai Chi, Wolf et al. (20) found that Tai Chi train-
ing reduced the risk of multiple falls by 47% compared to
those of an education group. We would suggest that the
functional exercise circuit employed in this study was
similar to the aforementioned dynamic training interven-
tions. Assuming as much, a functional or dynamic ap-
proach may activate the centers for postural control (i.e.,
somatosensory, vestibular, visual) (15) with the synaptic
plasticity occurring in the postural control centers as a
function of repetition and learning (18). Speculatively, an
additional benefit of the functional exercise circuit was
task complexity. That is, the required movement patterns
were not always easy to remember or easy to produce.
Hence, the functional exercise circuit represented a con-
tinuum of perceptual, cognitive, and action challenges
that, over time, may have affected cognitive and cerebel-
lum function as well (16).
The improved sit-and-reach performance was not un-
expected. Again, given the dynamic nature of the exer-
cise, including level changes and both static and dynamic
movements, improved hip and lower-back flexion was ex-
pected and consistent with the findings of other studies
in which flexibility was targeted through specific exercis-
Perceptions of physical functioning, pain, and vitality
were all significantly improved following training. As far
as physical functioning is concerned, there appears to be
a relationship between function and mobility, particularly
walking speed (3). Therefore, it is logical to conclude that
improved mobility was associated with a high degree of
physical functioning. Similarly, subjects in this study ap-
peared to perceive less pain and feel more vital following
12 weeks of exposure to a functional exercise circuit. Fi-
nally, a reduction in the number of doctor visits would
seem to go hand in hand with improved mobility as well
as a reduction in pain and a feeling of more vitality. Other
investigators have reported that older adults who report
a high level of physical functioning also perceived them-
selves as being healthy (21). Hence, such subjects are less
apt to make scheduled visits to their doctor.
This study offers support for using a functional exer-
cise circuit as a safe and cost-effective alternative to tra-
ditional exercise interventions for older adults. Subjects
did appear to derive both functional and perceived health
benefits from their participation in the functional exercise
circuit. Clearly, these finding must be interpreted with
caution. Without an experimental investigation, we may
not conclude a cause-and-effect relationship. However,
considering the adherence rate of 83% and the fact that
no subjects sustained injury during the course of the
study, the functional exercise circuit did appear to be
suitable for older adults. Future investigations should fo-
cus on comparing a traditional exercise intervention with
the functional exercise circuit.
A practitioner may find that a functional exercise circuit
can be both challenging and beneficial for an elderly sub-
ject wishing to improve physical functioning and mobility.
In addition, because the functional exercise circuit in-
cludes a series of movement patterns that must be pro-
duced 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 function-
al exercise circuit like the one employed here when com-
pared 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.
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This study was supported by a grant from the Quantum
Foundation, Inc., West Palm Beach, Florida.
Address correspondence to Dr. Michael Whitehurst,