Gotta Run: Why grip strength is a good measure of overall health

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 23, 2022

As various aspects of the COVID pandemic are relaxed, I’m glad that handshakes are returning. I grew up in a time when meeting someone new or greeting old friends was a prompt for direct and energetic handshakes. I think a good handshake serves two purposes, both relaxing a certain barrier and as an opening for comfortable conversation. One of my long-time friends from the Salisbury Rowan Runners is Dr. Dick Martin, the owner of the best handshake I’ve experienced.

The human hand is remarkable. Not only does it allow us to throw, grab, climb and pick things up, but it can also be a measure of health. By assessing hand-grip strength, the amount of force a person can generate with their grip, researchers can not only understand a person’s strength but can also know the rate a person is aging. They can even diagnose certain health conditions such as heart disease and cancer.

Men aged 20-30 typically have the greatest strength, while women over 75 have the lowest. In people aged 20-29 years old, average grip strength is 46kg for men and 29kg for women. This decreases to 39kg and 23.5kg by the time a person reaches 60-69 years of age.

Research shows that having a grip strength that was lower than average compared to people of the same gender and age range was associated with risk of heart failure, where lower strength indicated detrimental changes in the heart’s structure and function. Similarly, research has shown weaker grip strength is a strong predictor of cardiac death, death from any cause, and hospital admission for heart failure.

Grip strength may also be useful for predicting survival from cancer. Though survival is based on other factors, such as cancer type and time of diagnosis, one study found patients were more likely to survive non-small-cell lung cancer the greater their grip strength was.

Obesity is also associated with a weaker grip that progresses in later life. The presence of fat in and around muscle reduces muscle efficiency. Recent work has shown that people who develop type 2 diabetes have a weaker grip strength. This is probably caused by the presence of fat in the muscles making them less efficient at doing their job, then subsequently increasing inactivity and worsening muscular decline.

With disease (including heart disease, diabetes and cancer), our muscles’ ability to contract to generate force and their ability to function and move is reduced. This results from one or a combination of factors, such as reduced function of the heart to enable movement or prolonged movement, less efficiency in muscles, fatigue or muscle wasting. Having lower muscle function also results in loss of muscle tissue — and this tissue loss subsequently also leads to decreased muscle strength and the inability to do as much. Certain health conditions might also cause fatigue, which also makes us less likely to move and exercise, causing a cycle of further muscle loss and decline in strength.

Cancer, in particular, can limit how well our digestive system works, making it difficult to consume food and reducing appetite. The foods we eat, particularly those that are especially important for maintaining muscle mass and strength. Without proper food to fuel us and give us energy, the body must draw on its internal reserves to generate energy. One of the main ways it does this is to burn tissue that isn’t being used, likely muscle that isn’t being used. Loss of body mass reduces the body’s natural stores, and potentially its ability to sustain prolonged chronic illness.

One of the key things people can do to maintain health and improve muscle strength, or at the very least maintain it, is to exercise. The body has a “use it or lose it” approach to tissues, with muscles being broken down if not used. For instance, it’s well known that getting patients walking after surgery prevents loss of muscle and bone and reduces their length of stay in hospital. And even better, when that trip to the hospital comes as it did for me, being in the best shape possible helps with a quicker recovery.

Friday evening’s Teens with a Mission 5K and Superhero fun run are next up. Look for it and other events at .