Skip to main content

In the world of business, a firm handshake gives a good first impression. It shows you are energetic and confident. But there's more to it than a good impression. Your handshake says a lot about your health status.

Overall strength is important for long-term health. I'm not talking about world's strongest man. That is performance-related strength. I'm talking about health-related strength.

This measure indicates that a certain level of strength is necessary for good health. Below that point, you start losing functionality. In research, grip strength is used as a marker of upper-body strength, which correlates with overall strength.

For decades, scientific studies have been measuring the hand-grip strength of participants. The test is simple. And it has become a strong predictor of long-term health. It turns out that an unhealthy body just doesn't have the same grip strength as a healthy body. As a screening tool, grip strength gives an overview of a person's vitality.

Grip strength can also be used as a marker of aging. A paper published in May reported that lower hand-grip strength scores were correlated with faster aging in certain groups. Moreover, research has shown that lower hand-grip strength can be used as a predictor of malnutrition and hospitalization costs.

Don't fool yourself. Simply squeezing a stress ball while you sit on the couch won't make you healthier. But changing your lifestyle by improving your eating habits, sleeping better and including more movement and strength-building exercises will.

As an example, my colleague James Manson, epidemiologist at Cleveland Clinic Canada in Toronto, studied the effects of tai chi on seniors. He reported that the program made the participants healthier both mentally and physically. He also noticed a significant improvement in grip strength.

Manson says that initially people are confused about how grip strength can improve in tai chi since with Yang-style tai chi (used in his research), nothing is being held in participants' hands. However, physical activity that is aimed at improving overall health will result in benefits in other areas, such as grip strength and stress reduction. This tells us that even if grip strength tends to drop with age, some of it can be regained.

Any lifestyle improvements can enhance your vitality and increase your grip-strength score. It could be better nutrition, more restful sleep, getting off the couch or taking the stairs. And the obvious one is resistance training.

Challenging your grip directly will build up your muscle and bone strength. Don't think that you have to become a gym rat. You can do this by using free weights, machines, body weight or resistance bands. Every time you do an exercise and hold a weight in your hands, your grip is at work. Using a resistance band, loop it around something stable and pull toward you. If you are up to it, chin-ups will really challenge your grip.

Also, don't let your current health and fitness level stop you. I know that sometimes it may feel like it's too late. Just start where you are and take baby steps. All you have to do is make your muscles work a little harder than what they are used to. They will rise up to the challenge and become stronger.

Keep in mind that grip strength is just one of many health markers. If you lack the strength to juice a lemon, it doesn't mean that you'll die tomorrow. It just means you may have some work to do to improve your lifestyle, exercise routine and eating habits.

Ask yourself – next time you shake hands with someone, will you be sending a positive health message? If not, then maybe it's time to give yourself a hand in improving your health.

Health Advisor contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging.

Gilles Beaudin is a registered clinical exercise physiologist at Cleveland Clinic Canada.