Most of us grab hold of something every day—the steering wheel of a car, the handle of a heavy shopping bag or the hand of a new acquaintance. Whatever we’re holding, we’ve got a grip on it. But our grip strength can do more than help us hold on to an object. Handgrip is often used by physiologists to measure heart and blood vessel health. For example, the New York Times recently reported on a scientific article that found grip strength to be a predictor of heart attack and stroke. Researchers found that for each 11-pound decrease in grip strength there was “a 17 percent increased risk of cardiovascular death, a 7 percent increased risk of heart attack and a 9 percent increased risk of stroke.”
So, how is handgrip related to cardiovascular health? Researchers use handgrip as a technique to make muscles work so they can investigate cardiovascular responses including blood vessel expansion (dilation) during exercise. Handgrip exercise is easy to perform—most people can do it so scientists can study lots of different people. At low intensities, handgrip exercise only affects the blood vessels in the forearm and doesn’t bring in whole body cardiovascular reflexes, such as increasing heart rate, which could make the results of an experiment difficult to understand.
Many researchers use handgrip exercise to study blood vessel response during exercise. Recently, my colleagues and I showed that taking vitamin C (ascorbic acid) by mouth before exercising helped older people have greater blood flow and, therefore, oxygen delivery to their muscles while performing increasingly harder handgrip exercises. We’re not sure whether this would help with other types of exercise, but the results can help us understand one way to potentially improve exercise tolerance in older adults.
So the next time you shake someone’s hand, give it a firm squeeze. You’re working your cardiovascular system at the same time!
Anne R. Crecelius, PhD, is an assistant professor in the department of health and sport science at the University of Dayton in Dayton, OH.