A weak handshake may be a sign of unhealthy outcomes in the future, according to a new study — the first that associates grip strength with adolescent health over time.

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

Researchers at Baylor University, the University of Michigan and the University of New England measured the grip of students once in the fall of their fourth-grade year, and again at the end of the fifth grade. The team employed a handgrip dynamometer to assess grip strength for both dominant and non-dominant hands.

Around 27.9 percent of the boys and 20.1 percent of the girls were classified as weak. Both boys and girls with weak grips were more than three times as likely to decline in health or maintain poor health as those who were strong. The effect was most pronounced for cardiometabolic health maintenance and health, as reported in the Journal of Pediatrics.

“What we know about today’s kids is that because of the prevalence of obesity, they are more at risk for developing pre-diabetes and cardiovascular disease than previous generations,” said senior author Paul M. Gordon, a professor Baylor’s Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences.

“This study gives multiple snapshots over time that provide more insight about grip strength and future risks for developing diabetes and cardiovascular disease,” he said. “Low grip strength could be used to predict cardiometabolic risk and to identify adolescents who would benefit from lifestyle changes to improve muscular fitness.”

What the study implies is that, besides good nutrition and aerobic activity, a great emphasis ought to be placed on improving and maintaining muscle strength during adolescence as well. This is particularly important in today’s context where 17.2 percent of U.S. children and adolescents aged 2 to 19 years are obese and another 16.2 percent are overweight, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Doctors recommend that youths perform at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily — but fewer than a quarter of U.S. children actually comply.

Gorden notes that if a teen already had a strong grip, developing an even stronger grip doesn’t necessarily provide improvements in the individual’s health. “It’s the low strength that puts you at risk,” he said.

Building muscle is important for your health

To build muscle strength, do resistance training two or three times per week. Give your muscles one or two days off in between workouts.

Take advantage of daily activities to challenge your muscles. For example:

  • Lift a carton of milk a few times before you put it back in the refrigerator to build your arm muscles.
  • Take the stairs whenever possible. This will build the muscles in your legs, hips, buttocks, and abdomen.
  • Get active while talking on the phone or standing in line by doing leg lifts and heel raises — and don’t worry if this looks weird. This will help strengthen the muscles in your legs and buttocks.

In adults, grip strength — an easy and inexpensive test to assess an individual health — is an indicator of all-cause death, cardiovascular death, and cardiovascular disease. A 2015 study linked each 11-pound decrease in grip strength to a 16% higher risk of dying from any cause, a 17% higher risk of dying from heart disease, a 9% higher risk of stroke, and a 7% higher risk of heart attack.

In the future, researchers plan to study how weakness during childhood is reflected in poor health throughout adulthood.