Want to know the secret to long life?
In the age of Apps, step counters, heart rate monitors and online surveys – how do you know if you are healthy? Is it your weight? Your BMI? What about your waist circumference? Or your blood pressure?
Whilst all of the above might be good measures of your health, modern research suggests that if its your mortality you are trying to measure, your grip strength might be the best measure we have. That’s right, how good you are at opening jars might predict your life expectancy (compared to other people your age and gender opening the same jar).
I’ve told this story to hundreds of people in the last 3 years (after a landmark study was published in the Lancet journal in 2015) and almost always been met with the same reaction: No! Really? Are you sure? Why?
The reason is complex, but let me use the example of 2 clients to tell the story. One 30 year old, ‘Strong Sally’, trains in the gym twice a week to keep strong. Another 30 year old, ‘Weak Wendy’, avoids strength training because she doesn’t want big muscles. Strength naturally declines after the age of 30 so with each year you are more likely to give up activity because you don’t feel strong enough, or because you have pain due to loss of muscle.
By age 70, Sally has legs strong enough to get out of her chair, to climb stairs, to go walking and carry her own shopping. So she does. And in doing so, she socialises with friends, she maintains her cardiovascular health, she keeps her bones dense and lowers her blood sugars.
In contrast, at age 70 Wendy finds it difficult to push out of her chair. She has moved to a single story house as she can’t walk up stairs. So she doesn’t. Her cardiovascular health declines and she can’t walk far enough due to knee pain. Her bones become brittle because she isn’t loading them regularly and she is risk of fracture. She is diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes because her weight has increased and she is insulin resistant. All of this limits her socialising with friends and her mental health suffers.
Is this all because Wendy can’t open jars and Sally can? Not directly, but their grip strength is now considered to be a relevant, and accurate, biomarker of ageing. Biomarker of age is different to your chronological age. By biomarker of ageing, we mean that grip strength is a good reflection of your overall health; including ‘fitness’ and ‘resilience to disease’. People with a high grip strength are less likely to suffer stroke, heart attacks and are less likely to die from cardiovascular disease.
Does this mean everybody should be doing strength exercises? YES. Everybody? YES. At Kieser my youngest client is 12 and my oldest client is 91. Both can train safely, when properly supervised, and both can get tangible benefits from strength. A 25 year old triathlete will benefit from the injury prevention and performance of being stronger. A 50 year old office worker will benefit from the increased bone density, the decrease in back pain and the improved cardiovascular fitness.
Strength training doesn’t have to mean lifting free weights in front of a mirror, listening to loud music. My clients do strength training without every seeing a mirror, or listening to a single beat of music! Strength training can (and should) be done safely and effectively at any age to:
- Improve bone density – for osteoporosis
- Improve insulin sensitivity – for Type 2 diabetes
- Decrease musculoskeletal pain
- Increase cardiovascular fitness
- Maintain cognition and decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression
A question I often get asked after telling this story is, ‘Does this mean everybody should add grip strength exercises to their gym routine?’. The short answer here, is no. If you are already going to the gym and lifting weights then chances are you are keeping up your strength, you don’t need to do specific wrist exercises.
But if your exercise program doesn’t include strength training – then it should! Starting today!
The Carousel would like to thank Tim Dettmann for this article.
Photo by Debora Cardenas