As a kid, you may have had a parent or relative who was a sports nut – who loved playing, exercising, and challenging themself physically. The type of person who would say, “If you show me a bruise, I’ll buy you an ice cream!” to encourage fearlessness while fielding a fast, bouncing grounder. The type who would wander around the house doing reps with Progresso soup cans. Anyone who saw this person had to admit their enthusiasm was exciting.
Now you are around the age of that parent or relative you used to watch as a kid who taught you how to get down, be the wall, use two hands, and make an out. And you’re probably amazed at and inspired by their dedication to wellness now more than ever. It’s likely because you’re older, busy, and pretty tired for a good portion of the day.
It’s no secret that as we age, things change physically. We’re used to hearing why it’s so important to get our vitamin D and calcium for strong bones. Likewise, cardio and a healthy diet will keep our hearts healthy.
Us women may also notice that with each year, it gets a bit tougher to maintain lean muscle mass. That’s because muscle deteriorates as we age and sometimes with the onset of various health conditions.
The good news is there are ways to slow the process of muscle loss and weakness. One way to monitor and improve the health of our muscles is by checking in with our hand grip strength.
What can hand grip strength tell us?
About 65% of a person’s hand grip strength is genetic, while 35% depends on factors such as training and nutrition. Past studies have linked hand grip strength to various measures of physical condition, including bone density and longevity. It acts as an indicator of our overall health and the state of our muscles.
A “good grip” is important because it provides a window of sorts into the quality of our muscles and can even help slow or prevent diseases like diabetes, hypertension, or some cancers. Put simply, a strong grip can help improve our quality of life.
So why is it so tough to maintain our steel-trap grip as time goes on?
Underuse is one reason. These muscles weaken if we are not working out or no longer lift, grip, or carry heavy items in our day-to-day life. Sometimes sports injuries like tennis elbow are to blame. A pinched nerve or carpal tunnel are also common culprits of weakening hand strength. The latter might be the case if you’re frequently dropping light objects or are experiencing neck pain, tingling, or numbness in the upper extremities.
One study found that people with diabetes or high blood pressure have a weaker grip than those without either or both conditions. The study’s authors go on to suggest the difference points to muscle quality.
As we age, lipid fats can accumulate in skeletal muscle fibers, leading to poor muscle quality and sometimes metabolic disorders like insulin resistance. As we age, the loss of muscle mass can also be a risk factor for hypertension and diabetes.
How grip strength is measured/performed
Manual grip strength is tested using a tool called a hand dynamometer, which consists of a spring that is compressed by the force applied.
One grasps the dynamometer as if she were holding a glass, with her elbow tucked to the side and positioned at a right angle. She then squeezes the instrument for about five seconds. This test is typically performed with both hands, recording an average of three squeezes per hand.
When a dynamometer was used to help establish clinical norms for adults aged 20 to 75+ years on four tests of hand strength, the highest grip strength scores occurred in the 25 to 39 age groups. Average scores were relatively stable from 20 to 59 years, with a gradual decline witnessed at 60 to 79 years.
Additional research revealed that someone with a grip strength that is, on average, lower than that of their peers in the same gender and age range is more at risk of heart failure, as well as detrimental changes in the heart’s structure and function.
While a dynamometer can give us a number regarding our hand strength and its trajectory, this number is arguably not as significant as overall awareness and consistent effort to improve and maintain a strong, healthy grip.
Exercises you can try at home.
We can measure and improve our grip with the help of simple clinical tests and at-home exercises. (You can even use soup cans if you’d like!)
Ohio State Wexner Medical Center Physical Therapist Jake Depp suggests four types of “carries” that can help improve grip strength over time (“carries” simply means lifting a weight and walking around with it). Exercises like Farmer’s Carry, Rack Carry, Bottom-up Carry, and Overhead Carry can be performed at home and not only improve grip strength, but they are good for the whole body.
Depp recommends practicing each carry by walking around with weights until your grip strength is close to giving out or your posture begins to break down. Rest between repetitions and repeat.
These exercises work great at the end of a strength program at the gym or as a filler between sets, but it’s good to know that they are equally effective inside the home, as you need only weights and an open area to walk.
One-pound weights are a good place to start; if you don’t have weights at home, canned food or bottled water will do the trick. Work to add one pound every two weeks.
Part of life is coming to terms with change — accepting that we must continually learn, grow, and work with our wonderful bodies. As parents and caregivers, we encourage young children to develop and improve their fine motor skills with activities like gripping a pencil or playing with legos. As older adults, we’re not done with this type of care and learning.
A strong hand grip isn’t just good for health; it can lead us to experience greater independence as we age. It means opening more doorknobs and jars and perhaps getting out onto the court for a game of tennis with friends.
So go ahead and hoist that soup in the air. Small efforts can add up to meaningful results. If you want to take your grip strength workout to the next level, check out this fun and interactive video on the Prime Women YoutTube Channel.
Get a (Better) Grip