A recent study out of the UK has demonstrated a relationship – NOT a causal one but a correlated one – between strong arms, as measured by grip strength, and a healthy brain. So I’m typing this with one hand at a time while doing curls with the other.
Or, perhaps, I should relax and write this blog post quickly with both hands so I can do a real workout.
Way back before I was in grad school, studies were coming out about the health benefits of a strong grip. Even then they knew that it wasn’t strength per se; rather, hand grip strength was associated with a more active lifestyle and thus a healthier cardiovascular system. So it makes sense that this study could show a relationship between strength and brain function as the latter definitely depends somewhat on unrestricted blood flow.
More recent studies are also demonstrating the health benefits of muscle strength in preventing all sorts of diseases. One shows that it’s related to cardiovascular events associated with chronic kidney disease. Among hemodialysis patients, grip strength is a useful predictor of mortality. This is just one of many related to grip strength and frailty.
So now that medical science has recognized the health benefits of muscular strength other than for appearance or weight/metabolic management, it’s time to acknowledge that muscle strength, as measured quite simply by grip strength, would demonstrate benefits to the brain. But we must be clear here: strength training, by itself, especially of the small muscles of the forearm DO NOT improve brain health by virtue of improved strength.
What should be emphasized is that those who have stronger forearms tend to do activities, and exercises, that require the muscles to wrap around some object to carry, lift or pull. As a result, larger muscles, from shoulders to core, are involved, requiring more blood to be pumped throughout the body against the mechanical resistance of the muscles around the blood vessels. This strengthens a healthy heart – it can also blow a gasket in the unhealthy heart, so beware – and enables the heart to pump oxygenated blood to the brain – to keep it healthy.
Furthermore, activities that engage the forearm muscles, be they tennis or gardening or weight lifting, require some cognitive functions that, at least in the early stages, require more neural connections to be created within the brain. And those are good things, right?
So headlines be damned, again. Let’s use common sense. If all it took to go through life with our brains intact was to squeeze a tennis ball, then there’d be a run on them. What it does take is the continued ability to move more and occasionally more vigorously so that the heart gets healthier and stays that way. Even if the hand grip does not get stronger if, for example, you’re a jogger, due to muscles of the legs demanding more from the heart, your brain benefits. And studies show this. It’s just that grip strength is a surrogate and simplistic measure of physical strength overall.
Furthermore, as you might have ascertained by now, and the article suggests, strengthening the grip does nothing for strengthening the heart or the brain. In other words, don’t think you can just work on forearm strength to avoid dementia. That would be a royal waste of time and energy.
So fear not if your grip is weak, or if you develop tennis elbow. Continue moving, continue lifting and continue as much aerobic activity as you are able, for not only does it help the muscles; it helps the brain.