Are you able to offer a firm handshake when you meet someone? How easy it for you to open a jar or twist a screwdriver?
Most of us don’t often think about handgrip strength, and we certainly don’t think of it in the context of mental capacity. However, grip strength is one clear measure of overall muscle strength, which now appears to be connected to mental health.
One study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association found an relationship between grip strength and dementia risk, and several studies, including one reported in WebMD, have shown an association between declining physical health and dementia.
Grip strength is also necessary in so many parts of daily life: opening jars for cooking, opening doors, gripping handrails on stairways. It follows, then, that improving grip strength and maintaining overall muscle health can help a person stay mentally healthy. Staying physically fit can help seniors maintain their independence, which is good for mental health and happiness. Physical activity also has a positive impact on the brain and our moods.
Of course, weak grip strength doesn’t necessarily mean dementia is in your future. However, improving grip strength is one way to build strength and maintain independence regardless of genetic predisposition and other factors.
The work of our hands
Why is hand strength important? You may not have considered all the activities that require strength and dexterity in our hands, but here are a few to consider:
- Daily activities like cooking, brushing hair and teeth, gripping a chair or railing, sweeping and shoveling
- Sports like tennis, pickleball, kayaking and canoeing, baseball, basketball, weightlifting and more
- Hobbies like woodworking and working on cars
- Holding a leash for a dog or holding on to a toddler’s hand
- Writing by hand or typing
When you think about making a fist, gripping or pinching something – or even typing or playing the piano – you may not think about all the muscles involved.
When you’re working on grip strength, you’re not just concerned about the interossei muscles that bend the fingers and allow us to spread our fingers out and pull them together. There’s also the hypothenar, a group of three muscles on the small finger side of the hand that allow that finger to move in various ways, and the lumbricals, which allow the fingers to straighten and help bend the joints at the knuckles.
In the thumb area, the thenar group of three muscles allows the thumb to move in various ways. One important muscle in this group is the opponens pollicis, which allows us to grasp objects by pulling the thumb away from the other fingers. Also near the thumb are the abductor pollicis, which provides power for pinching, and the abductor pollicis longus, which goes into the wrist.
Don’t forget these muscles are connected to those in our wrist and forearm, which is why carpal tunnel syndrome and other problems with the forearm and wrist often result from repetitive activities we usually associate with the hands, like typing and holding hand weights.
Building grip strength
Considering all the muscles involved in moving our hands and how connected they are to other muscles, it makes sense we have to use these muscles regularly and build up their strength if we want them to work for us for years to come.
The good news is you can do many activities inside and outside the home to improve grip strength. Nuket J. Curran, a physical therapist for the in-home physical therapy company Luna, recommended “any activity that makes the user manipulate small objects, squeeze and open items, or pick up and place items.”
It’s also noteworthy that these muscle-building exercises work for people of all ages.
“You can start at any age,” said Fletcher. “It doesn’t matter if you’re 50, 60, 70, 80. You can build muscle just like a 25-year-old can. Studies have proven this time and time again.”
Some ideas Fletcher provided for improving grip strength at home include:
- Resistance training with weights or resistance bands
- Sports like tennis, pickleball, golf and yoga
- Gardening (holding a trowel, pulling weeds)
- Squeezing a ball
- Wringing out a towel
- Pinching objects
- Carrying suitcases
- Doing housework that involves holding a broom or holding on to another object
If you’re looking for more ideas, check out these home exercises for grip strength.
Fletcher provided a suggestion for measuring your progress at home: Before you start your exercises, measure your grip strength by holding an analog scale like a book and squeezing. Record the pounds or kilograms of pressure you exert. Measure it over time to see your progress. It may not be the most accurate measure, but you’ll be able to see a difference between before and after you started building handgrip strength.
When to see a professional
It’s true there are many handgrip exercises you can do at home on your own, but if you’re having a hard time coming up with exercises or have specific questions, you can always contact a physical therapist or personal trainer who can assess your strength and provide recommendations.
You’ll also want to see a doctor if you think you have underlying nerve issues or injuries beyond normal muscle weakness, such as tendonitis or carpal tunnel syndrome. A professional can diagnose your condition and provide recommendations for building strength once you have the condition under control.