Grip strength: it’s not just about handshakes and pickle jars. The strength of your hands and forearms is actually a pretty decent predictor of future health.
According to Ruth Litchfield of Iowa State University, “Grip strength is a measure of muscular strength or the maximum force/tension generated by one’s forearm muscles.”
If you have your grip strength tested by your PT or doc, chances are they’ll hand you a device called a dynamometer. Squeeze the device three times, as hard as you can, and your result is the average of those three squeezes.
A good result for women over 40, according to a 2010 article in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society, was at least 44 pounds of squeezing strength. (For comparison, human gecko free climber Alex Honnold squeezed over twice that at the Oscars).
Be aware that conditions such as carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis can impact grip strength, so if you have either or both of those conditions, your numbers may well be lower.
Turns out, grip strength is cheap, quick, and pretty accurate predictor of future health.
A study done in the UK from 2007 to 2010 followed over half a million participants to see how well grip strength did as a measure of overall health and wellness. Participants ranged in age from 40 to 69 at the outset, were 54% female, and included a range of ethnicities, body mass indices, socioeconomic statuses, pre-existing conditions, and lifestyle behaviors such as smoking, physical activity, and diet.
Translation: it was a pretty good – though not perfect – sampling of the general population.
The aim of the study was to see if there was a correlation between grip strength and mortality and disease. Researchers wanted to determine if poor grip strength was associated with higher risk of cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, COPD, all cancers – and in particular breast, prostate, colorectal, and lung cancers – and mortality overall.
Turns out, as a predictive measure, grip strength is pretty accurate. For both men and women, they found, a lower grip strength of 5 kg (11 pounds) “was associated with a higher hazard for all cause mortality and incidence of and mortality from cardiovascular disease, all respiratory disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, all cancer, and colorectal, lung, and breast cancer.”
The association between grip and wellness declines a bit with age, perhaps because other factors can weaken muscles as we age, not just illness.
It’s probably not the strength of hands and forearms that determine longevity; instead, it’s that grip strength is a good stand-in for overall health and wellness. Retaining muscle strength overall often leads to better health outcomes.
As Darryl Leong of McMaster University told The Washington Post, “Muscle strength is an indicator of your ability to withstand diseases. When you are stronger and you become ill, you have reserves that you can draw on to help fight the disease. Without muscle strength, your odds are significantly poorer.”
Of course not, unless you depend on pickles for survival.
There are lots of factors that can impact grip strength. It has a strong hereditary component, according to the authors of the UK study (about 52%), but grip strength may also be a reflection of lifestyle.
So if a go at the dynamometer shows you have sub-optimal grip strength, there are things you can do to improve your overall health. (Just an FYI, though; simply improving grip strength probably won’t change your risk of developing certain diseases.)
Get at least 10-15 minutes of physical activity a day. Cardiovascular workouts such as swimming, biking, running, and walking are great, but try to add in some weight and resistance training. Not only is exercise good for muscles mass, it’s good for your bones, weight, and mood, all of which can increase longevity.
Improve core strength and balance. Falls and injuries due to falls are one of the leading causes of death among older Americans.
Eat a healthy diet. Older adults may need to keep an eye on their protein intake to be sure they’re getting enough protein to maintain muscle mass.
Don’t smoke. In addition to all the other negative impacts, smoking also affects strength. Even if you exercise, you’ll retain less muscle or add muscle more slowly if you’re a smoker.
Sitting around squeezing a stress ball to increase hand strength probably won’t help you live longer if you’re not also eating well, sleeping sufficiently, and exercising. (Though if it actually relieves stress, keep it up!)
The truth is, crashing fatigue, busy lives, mood issues such as depression, or menopause symptoms can all lead us to give up on those truly healthy lifestyle choices, like getting out for a walk or cooking our own meals. If you need a little encouragement, testing hand strength might be a good incentive, since you can actually see progress over time.
The next time you see your doc or PT, ask if you can take a grip test. Write down your numbers, left and right hand. In 3 months, test it again: have all those good, healthy changes you’ve made shifted the needle?
If you’ve tested your grip, or if you want to take us up on the challenge, let us know how it’s going. Please join us in our public forums, leave us a note on the Gennev Facebook page, or join our community in Midlife & Menopause Solutions, our closed Facebook group.