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Your hands do important tasks every day. Here’s how to help keep them strong.
Having trouble opening jars? Buttoning a shirt? Holding onto your dog’s leash? While you can certainly blame the manufacturers of tight lids, a more likely culprit is declining grip strength.
Although it’s normal to lose some of your hand strength as you get older, that doesn’t mean you have to give in to a weaker grip. After all, your hands are one of the primary tools you use to interact with your environment and go about your day — they deserve extra attention.
“The hand is packed with sensory receptors that send information to your brain about the things you touch, grab and feel,” says Stephen M. Byers, D.C., a chiropractor and strength and conditioning coach.
“Your brain wants to know what your hands are sensing about the world around you,” Byers says. “The answer comes from your grip. It provides a lot of information to the brain about how much something weighs and what the shoulder and core muscles need to do to get ready for what you just picked up, pulled on or grabbed.”
Why Grip Strength Starts to Slip — and Why You Should Care
Just as overall strength in the body declines with age, so does grip strength. And that matters because your grip provides a snapshot of your overall strength — a key determinant of health.
“A strong grip in a person over 60 is often a positive indication of adequate muscle mass, while a weak grip can be cause for concern,” says Gretchen Zelek, a certified Functional Aging Specialist trainer.
Grip strength is so important, in fact, that it’s often used as a quick check of a person’s overall health, adds Byers. “Like blood pressure,” he says, “grip gives information about how healthy the body is.”
The stronger your grip is in your 60s, he adds, the healthier you’ll likely be in your 70s, 80s and beyond. For example, having a low grip strength is a predictor of heart disease and diabetes, according to a 2017 study from The Journals of Gerontology. Researchers found that as grip strength decreased, the risk of diabetes, low HDL (or “good”) cholesterol, hypertension and other physical disabilities increased.
But when you flip the script and maintain a good grip well into your older years, you’ll have an easier time remaining physically active and generally healthier, according to a 2017 review published in The Journal of Physical Fitness and Sports Medicine.
How to Test Your Grip Strength
You’ll know if your grip is slipping by paying attention to how easy it is for you to do daily activities, Zelek says. If you’re struggling to turn a doorknob, pick up a bag of potatoes or lift a pot off the counter, those are red flags that your grip isn’t up to par.
But you can actually measure your grip strength, she says. All you need is your bathroom scale — preferably the traditional analog kind, but digital can work, too. Then do this:
- Hold the scale in front of you. Keep your arms close to your sides and bend your elbows to form right angles.
- Squeeze the scale as hard as you can with your left hand, and then again with your right hand.
- Take note of your measurement for each hand.
- A measurement of 65 pounds or more is considered normal for men over 60 years, while 45 pounds or more is considered average for women over 60 years, Zelek says, adding that it’s common for one hand to be a little stronger than the other.
7 Exercises to Help Boost Your Grip Strength
Just as with any muscle in your body, hand muscles require work to maintain their strength and flexibility, says Byers. And if you’re not using or challenging them daily, they’ll lose some of their function. That’s why, for instance, a farmer, waitress or even an avid gardener may have a stronger grip than somebody who spends most of their day behind a computer.
“You have to use your grip to maintain your grip,” Byers says. In other words, unless you really need it, don’t be quick to ask for help when opening a jar or buttoning that shirt.
Fortunately, you can build grip strength with a few daily exercises. Here are seven that Zelek recommends. You don’t have to do them all at once. Feel free to mix them up and do one or two every day.
If you have an injury or condition that affects your hands or wrists, ask your doctor to recommend exercises that are safe for you.
1. Finger squeeze. Place a small rubber ball between the fingers and thumb of one hand. Squeeze the ball, hold for a count of three, and then release. Repeat three to five times, then switch hands and repeat.
2. Wring out a wet cloth. Standing at a sink, wet a hand towel. Using both hands, wring it out, squeezing away and then toward your body. Continue alternating directions until most of the water is out of the towel.
3. Shape play dough. Using ordinary play dough or art clay, roll the dough into a ball using one hand at a time. Next, try flattening the dough, again using one hand at a time. Finally, roll the dough into a long rope, also using one hand at a time.
4. Farmer’s walk. Hold a light- to medium-weight dumbbell or kettlebell in each hand. (You can also use soup cans or even two shopping bags with a few books or magazines inside.) Walk about 20 feet across the room. Place the weight on the floor and rest for 30 seconds, and then return to start. Try to do this three to five times.
5. High five. Wrap a thick rubber band around the fingers and thumb of one hand, close to your nails. Open your hand, extending your fingers as far apart as you can, without losing the band. Bring your fingers and thumb back together and repeat 10 times. Rest for 15 to 30 seconds, and then repeat the sequence one more time. Switch hands and repeat.
6. Wrist curls. Sit in a sturdy chair with your feet flat on the floor and lean forward slightly. Hold a light dumbbell (or water bottle) in your left hand. Place your left wrist on your left knee, with the palm turned up. Using only your wrist, curl the dumbbell toward you and then back down. This is a small movement: Your wrist will stay on your knee the entire time. Repeat 10 times, and then switch hands and repeat. Rest for 30 seconds, and then do a second set.
7. Flex and extend. Hold one hand in front of you and make a fist, squeezing as hard as you can. Hold for five seconds and then open your hand and extend your fingers as wide as you can for five seconds. Repeat 10 times, and then switch hands and repeat. Rest for 15 to 30 seconds, and then do a second set.
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