Heat training can boost your cool-weather performance

Monday, October 7th, 2019

A 2010 study from the University of Oregon found that 10 days of training in 104 degrees Fahrenheit boosted cyclists’ VO2max by 5 percent, Alex Hutchinson notes, even when the subjects were later tested in cool temperatures, and a new study out of Swansea University supports this finding:

The study involved 22 cyclists (all male, alas), all of whom were serious amateur cyclists training an average of 14 hours a week and competing regularly. The adaptation protocol was 10 consecutive days of cycling in the lab for 60 minutes at an intensity equal to 50 percent of their VO2max, with half of them in the heat group at a room temperature of 100.4 F (38 degrees Celsius) and the other half in a control group at 68 F (20 C). They also continued with their normal training outside the lab, subtracting their lab rides to maintain roughly the same training volume as usual. The outcome measure on the test days was VO2max, a marker of aerobic fitness that has a reasonably good correlation with race performance, tested at 68 F (20 C).

If you looked at the data right after the heat adaptation period, or even a couple of days later, you’d conclude that it makes you worse. The VO2max readings were lower. But three days after the heat adaptation, VO2max readings started to climb, and four days afterwards, they peaked at 4.9 percent higher than baseline, strikingly similar to the 2010 Oregon study. The control group, meanwhile, hardly saw any change.

CR is unpleasant to most humans

Thursday, September 26th, 2019

Rapamycin is an immunosuppressant for transplant patients, but it’s also been found to increase lifespan in lab animals. Dr. Alan Green, who prescribes rapamycin for anti-aging purposes, recommends Blagosklonny’s paper, Disease or not, aging is easily treatable:

Is aging a disease? It does not matter because aging is already treated using a combination of several clinically-available drugs, including rapamycin. Whether aging is a disease depends on arbitrary definitions of both disease and aging. For treatment purposes, aging is a deadly disease (or more generally, pre-disease), despite being a normal continuation of normal organismal growth. It must and, importantly, can be successfully treated, thereby delaying classic age-related diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, and neurodegeneration.

[...]

As the simplest example, calorie restriction (CR) slows aging in diverse organisms, including primates [43-50]. Similarly, intermittent fasting (IF) and ketogenic diet (severe carbohydrate restriction) extend life span in mammals [48, 51-54]. CR (as well as carbohydrate restriction and IF fasting) improves health in humans [45, 48, 53, 55-62]. However, CR is unpleasant to most humans and its life-extending capacity is limited. Nutrients activate the mTOR (molecular Target of Rapamycin) nutrient-sensing pathway [63-65] and, as we will discuss mTOR drives aging, inhabitable by rapamycin. Rapamycin-based anti-aging therapies have been recently implemented by Dr. Alan Green (https://rapamycintherapy.com).

There’s a bit of circularity there.

See obstacles as opportunities

Tuesday, September 17th, 2019

The PK Silver program sounds ludicrous at first, but parkour for seniors makes perfect sense, if your goal is to train up balance to prevent falls:

Mejia helps break down traditional Parkour moves into versions that are safe and manageable for the older crowd, and also challenge their balance, strength, and flexibility.

Nancy Lorentz, 56, who can effortlessly swing off a tree branch and go right into a somersault, created the program, called PK Silver, in 2016, hoping to share her love of Parkour while helping other people over 50 stay safe.

“We’re a fitness-and-falls prevention program that is Parkour-based,” she said, noting that 27,000 people die from falls every year and that using modified Parkour moves could help address that problem. Plus, she likes the Parkour philosophy.

“You just see obstacles as being opportunities,” she said. “Yes, there is an element of risk in it, but you can’t improve someone’s balance by keeping them on the couch all the time.”

Watch the video.

A chess player can burn up to 6,000 calories a day

Monday, September 16th, 2019

Chess is physically demanding:

The 1984 World Chess Championship was called off after five months and 48 games because defending champion Anatoly Karpov had lost 22 pounds. “He looked like death,” grandmaster and commentator Maurice Ashley recalls.

In 2004, winner Rustam Kasimdzhanov walked away from the six-game world championship having lost 17 pounds. In October 2018, Polar, a U.S.-based company that tracks heart rates, monitored chess players during a tournament and found that 21-year-old Russian grandmaster Mikhail Antipov had burned 560 calories in two hours of sitting and playing chess — or roughly what Roger Federer would burn in an hour of singles tennis.

Robert Sapolsky, who studies stress in primates at Stanford University, says a chess player can burn up to 6,000 calories a day while playing in a tournament, three times what an average person consumes in a day. Based on breathing rates (which triple during competition), blood pressure (which elevates) and muscle contractions before, during and after major tournaments, Sapolsky suggests that grandmasters’ stress responses to chess are on par with what elite athletes experience.

“Grandmasters sustain elevated blood pressure for hours in the range found in competitive marathon runners,” Sapolsky says.

It all combines to produce an average weight loss of 2 pounds a day, or about 10-12 pounds over the course of a 10-day tournament in which each grandmaster might play five or six times.

Do the work, and push pretty hard

Wednesday, September 4th, 2019

Lifting to failure is generally better, but not always:

Amid the confusing torrent of advice about the best ways to build strength, I’ve taken comfort from a series of reassuringly simple studies from McMaster University over the past decade. Researcher Stuart Phillips and his colleagues have repeatedly demonstrated that if you do a series of lifts to failure — that is, until you can’t do another rep — then it doesn’t much matter how heavy the weight is or how many reps you do. As long as you’re maxing out, you’ll gain similar amounts of strength with light or heavy weights.

But there’s an interesting caveat to this advice, according to a new study from a team at East Tennessee State University led by Kevin Carroll, published in Sports: just because you can lift to failure doesn’t mean you always should.

Researchers have previously pointed out that it takes longer to recover from a strength training session when you go to failure than when you stop a few reps short, with negative neuromuscular effects lasting 24 to 48 hours. You also recover more quickly even if you do the exact same number of reps but take a little extra rest halfway so that you don’t quite hit failure. On the surface, this is a trivially obvious point: of course it takes longer to recover if you work harder! The question, though, is whether there’s something particularly damaging or exhausting about going all the way to failure that outweighs the positive training effect you get from working harder.

[...]

So, in summary, two groups doing almost the same training, except one group was hitting failure on the last set of each exercise in every workout. The initial results from this study were published last year, showing that the relative intensity group had greater improvements in maximum strength and vertical jump. The new paper adds a bunch of information based on muscle biopsies and ultrasound, showing a greater increase for the relative intensity group in overall muscle size, the size of individual muscle fibers, and the presence of several key molecular signals of muscle growth.

Before we conclude that failure is bad, there’s one other detail of the training program that’s worth mentioning. While the failure group was hammering away three times a week, the relative intensity group was doing two harder (though not to failure) workouts and one easier workout each week. For example, a max strength workout of three sets of five reps might start at 85 percent for the two hard workouts, but then drop to 70 percent for the easier one.

This seems like a whole different variable thrown into the mix, and it reminds me of a study from Marcas Bamman’s group at the University of Alabama at Birmingham a couple of years ago. In a big study of older adults, he found that doing two harder workouts and one easier workout each week produced better strength gains that just two hard workouts or just three hard workouts a week. He suggested that lingering inflammation in the muscles made the subjects unable to fully benefit from three hard workouts a week. Instead, doing a third easier workout added some fitness gains compared to just two weekly workouts, but still allowed the muscles to recover.

So to me, the message from the new study isn’t necessarily that lifting to failure is bad. It’s that lifting to failure all the time might be counterproductive (and especially so as you get older, Bamman’s results suggest). The point Phillips has been trying to make is that, for the vast majority of us, all the variables that make your head spin — sets, reps, one-rep max percentages, and so on — are utterly minor details compared to the main goal of simply doing the work, and sometimes pushing pretty hard.

You have your parents’ tendons

Monday, September 2nd, 2019

You have your parents’ tendons:

A study from Ritsumeikan University, home to one of the top collegiate running programs in Japan, looked at injury risk in 24 elite long-distance runners. The researchers weren’t concerned with mileage levels, shoe type, stretching routines, or any of the usual factors we associate with running injuries. Instead, they were focused on spit.

Over the past decade or so, a series of studies have suggested that certain gene variants can affect the structure of your collagen fibrils, the basic building blocks of tendons and ligaments. Some versions of these genes make you less likely to develop problems like Achilles tendinopathy; others make you more likely. Researchers have found, for example, that rugby players who make it to the elite level are more likely to have the tendon-protective gene variants, presumably because those who don’t are more likely to have their careers derailed by injury.

In the new Japanese study, the athletes were asked about their history of tendon and ligaments inflammations and injuries during their university career, then gave a spit sample for DNA analysis. The injury data was compared to five specific variants in four different genes that have previously been associated with tendon and ligament structure. For three of the five variants, those with the “bad” version were indeed significantly more likely to have suffered tendon and ligament injuries. (The fourth variant didn’t have any predictive value in this group, and the fifth didn’t yield any information because all the runners in the study had the same version of the gene.)

Given previous research, these results aren’t particular surprising. The question is what you do with this information. There are companies that offer personal genetic testing that includes some of these gene variants (COL5A1 was the best predictor in this study), so you can find out your status and…do what, exactly?

In a review of the field a few years ago, some of the leading researchers suggested  that, rather than getting a DNA test, you should simply be aware of whether you have a personal or family history of tendon and ligament injuries. Either way, it’s worth thinking about what you would change in your training if you suddenly discovered that your tendons were, say, 10 or 20 percent more likely to get inflamed compared to the average person. If you think you would start doing more stretching or strengthening or icing or “listening to your body” or whatever, then my question is simple: why aren’t you doing that already?

Do ice baths suppress muscle gains?

Sunday, September 1st, 2019

Do ice baths suppress muscle gains?

Fuchs and his colleagues had 12 volunteers do a strength-training session, then hop into an ice tub—or actually, half an ice tub. One leg was submerged in cold water at 46 degrees Fahrenheit (8 Celsius), while the other leg was submersed in tepid water at 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 Celsius), for 20 minutes. Then they chugged a recovery shake with 45 grams of carbohydrate and 20 grams of protein, the latter of which contained a tracer that allowed the researchers to determine how much of the protein was incorporated into new muscle. Over the following two weeks, the researchers took frequent blood samples and muscle biopsies to track their progress.

Sure enough, the rate of muscle protein synthesis was significantly lower in the cooled leg than in the leg that got the lukewarm bath, with a difference over the course of two weeks of about 13 percent. Now, lab measures like muscle protein synthesis are still not the same as measuring actual differences in strength over a longer period of time. It’s awfully suggestive, though, and bolsters the case that ice baths—and, presumably, other recovery enhancers—may come with a hidden cost to fitness gains.

The higher a subject’s anxiety, the more intense their subsequent muscle soreness

Friday, August 30th, 2019

Muscle soreness is in you head — at least partly:

The usual explanation of delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is something like this: when you do exercise that’s unfamiliar or harder than usual, you inflict microscopic tears in your muscle fibers. Over the next 24 to 48 hours, a cycle of inflammation and repair leads to soreness that can persist for several days. But it has long been clear that this explanation doesn’t tell the whole story. For example, if you exercise your right leg only, your left leg will be less likely to get sore after future workouts, which suggests that the perception of soreness isn’t just about what’s happening in your muscle fibers.

In this spirit, an ACSM presentation from a team led by Einat Kodesh of the University of Haifa in Israel explores the potential role of mental traits in post-exercise soreness. They had 32 volunteers complete a series of psychological questionnaires and pain tests, then perform an exercise designed to induce DOMS. A day later, another questionnaire found that 17 of the subjects had developed DOMS, while 15 hadn’t.

Sure enough, there were some notable psychological differences between those who did and didn’t get sore. The DOMS sufferers had reported higher levels of anxiety, depression and stress before any exercise took place. The higher a subject’s anxiety, the more intense their subsequent muscle soreness was likely to be. Less surprisingly, the pre-exercise pain tests, which basically involved poking the subjects with a blunt needle to see how much pressure it took to make them hurt, also successfully predicted who was likely to develop DOMS.

The message here isn’t that pain and soreness are all in your head, or that admitting you feel sore is a sign of weakness. But it is a reminder that recovery is a murkier and less objective concept that we like to think. When we try to understand athletes’ obsession with things like ice baths, if we focus only on what’s happening in the muscle fibers, then we’re not necessarily seeing the whole picture.

The people who gain lots of muscle do so regardless of the exact workout routine they follow

Wednesday, August 21st, 2019

A recent study put 20 men through an eight-week training program involving single-leg presses and extensions, with the catch that they did a different workout routine with each leg:

With one leg, they did a plain-vanilla progressive training program involving four sets of each exercise with a two-minute rest, with the load chosen to reach failure between 9 and 12 repetitions. With the other leg, they did a variable routine that systematically switched up some of the parameters. Some workouts had a lighter load enabling 25 to 30 repetitions before failure; some involved six sets of each exercise rather than four; some involved eccentric contractions only; and some had four minutes of rest between sets rather than two.

[...]

So the main result of the study is that following a complicated variable weight-training routine rather than a simple unvarying one doesn’t seem to make any significant difference to how much muscle you accrue.

[...]

But there’s a further analysis that the single-leg design enables: you can look at the variation in results from two legs in the same person following different training plans, and see how that compares to the variation between two legs in different people following the same training plan. That analysis is pretty eyebrow-raising: there’s 40 times more variability between people than there is between training plans. The people who gain lots of muscle do so regardless of the exact workout routine they follow; and it’s the same for the people who don’t.

He favors a motorcentric view of the brain

Wednesday, August 14th, 2019

Neuroscientist Shane O’Mara has written an entire book In Praise of Walking:

He favours what he calls a “motor-centric” view of the brain — that it evolved to support movement and, therefore, if we stop moving about, it won’t work as well.

This is neatly illustrated by the life cycle of the humble sea squirt which, in its adult form, is a marine invertebrate found clinging to rocks or boat hulls. It has no brain because it has eaten it. During its larval stage, it had a backbone, a single eye and a basic brain to enable it to swim about hunting like “a small, water-dwelling, vertebrate cyclops”, as O’Mara puts it. The larval sea squirt knew when it was hungry and how to move about, and it could tell up from down. But, when it fused on to a rock to start its new vegetative existence, it consumed its redundant eye, brain and spinal cord. Certain species of jellyfish, conversely, start out as brainless polyps on rocks, only developing complicated nerves that might be considered semi-brains as they become swimmers.

[...]

“Our sensory systems work at their best when they’re moving about the world,” says O’Mara. He cites a 2018 study that tracked participants’ activity levels and personality traits over 20 years, and found that those who moved the least showed malign personality changes, scoring lower in the positive traits: openness, extraversion and agreeableness. There is substantial data showing that walkers have lower rates of depression, too. And we know, says O’Mara, “from the scientific literature, that getting people to engage in physical activity before they engage in a creative act is very powerful. My notion — and we need to test this — is that the activation that occurs across the whole of the brain during problem-solving becomes much greater almost as an accident of walking demanding lots of neural resources.”

O’Mara’s enthusiasm for walking ties in with both of his main interests as a professor of experimental brain research: stress, depression and anxiety; and learning, memory and cognition. “It turns out that the brain systems that support learning, memory and cognition are the same ones that are very badly affected by stress and depression,” he says. “And by a quirk of evolution, these brain systems also support functions such as cognitive mapping,” by which he means our internal GPS system. But these aren’t the only overlaps between movement and mental and cognitive health that neuroscience has identified.

I witnessed the brain-healing effects of walking when my partner was recovering from an acute brain injury. His mind was often unsettled, but during our evening strolls through east London, things started to make more sense and conversation flowed easily. O’Mara nods knowingly. “You’re walking rhythmically together,” he says, “and there are all sorts of rhythms happening in the brain as a result of engaging in that kind of activity, and they’re absent when you’re sitting. One of the great overlooked superpowers we have is that, when we get up and walk, our senses are sharpened. Rhythms that would previously be quiet suddenly come to life, and the way our brain interacts with our body changes.”

From the scant data available on walking and brain injury, says O’Mara, “it is reasonable to surmise that supervised walking may help with acquired brain injury, depending on the nature, type and extent of injury — perhaps by promoting blood flow, and perhaps also through the effect of entraining various electrical rhythms in the brain. And perhaps by engaging in systematic dual tasking, such as talking and walking.”

One such rhythm, he says, is that of theta brainwaves. Theta is a pulse or frequency (seven to eight hertz, to be precise) which, says O’Mara, “you can detect all over the brain during the course of movement, and it has all sorts of wonderful effects in terms of assisting learning and memory, and those kinds of things”. Theta cranks up when we move around because it is needed for spatial learning, and O’Mara suspects that walking is the best movement for such learning. “The timescales that walking affords us are the ones we evolved with,” he writes, “and in which information pickup from the environment most easily occurs.”

Essential brain-nourishing molecules are produced by aerobically demanding activity, too. You’ll get raised levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which, writes O’Mara, “could be thought of as a kind of a molecular fertiliser produced within the brain because it supports structural remodelling and growth of synapses after learning … BDNF increases resilience to ageing, and damage caused by trauma or infection.” Then there’s vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), which helps to grow the network of blood vessels carrying oxygen and nutrients to brain cells.

You can’t be healthy unless the animals you eat are healthy

Wednesday, August 7th, 2019

The New York Times looks at the vegetarians who turned into (ethical) butchers:

As soon as I started eating meat, my health improved,” she said. “My mental acuity stepped up, I lost weight, my acne cleared up, my hair got better. I felt like a fog lifted.” All of the meat was from healthy, grass-fed animals reared on the farms where she worked.

Other former vegetarians reported that they, too, felt better after introducing grass-fed meat into their diets: Ms. Kavanaugh said eating meat again helped with her depression. Mr. Applestone said he felt far more energetic.

[...]

Grass-fed and -finished meat has been shown to be more healthful to humans than that from animals fed on soy and corn, containing higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid, beta carotene and other nutrients. Cows that are fed predominantly grass and forage also have better health themselves, requiring less use of antibiotics.

“There’s one health for animals and humans,” Ms. Fernald said. “You can’t be healthy unless the animals you eat are healthy.”

There’s another benefit to grass-fed and -pastured meat: It can be absolutely delicious, as that steak in Denver reminded me.

Mr. Applestone vividly remembers that first bacon sandwich (made with pasture-raised pork) in his post-vegetarian life, served on a soft Martin’s potato roll: “I thought it was the greatest thing that ever hit my mouth.”

Injury rates across sports can be surprising

Friday, July 26th, 2019

Injury rates across sports can be surprising:

Injury Rates across 15 Sports

These kids are ticking time bombs

Sunday, July 21st, 2019

Players are physically broken down by the time they reach the NBA:

In a series of studies in 2017 and 2018, a team of researchers working with the University of Wisconsin’s David Bell, a professor in its Department of Kinesiology’s Athletic Training Program and the director of the Wisconsin Injury in Sport Laboratory, found that while most youth athletes today believe specialization increases their performance and chances of making a college team, the majority of those who reached Division I level didn’t classify as highly specialized at the high school level. Jayanthi and a team of fellow researchers had reached a similar conclusion in a separate 2013 study. (The classification of “highly specialized” was granted to athletes who answered “yes” to the following three questions: Can you identify your primary sport? Do you play or train in that sport for more than eight months of the year? Have you ever quit one sport to focus on a primary sport?)

But while the upsides of specialization are unclear, there are few doubts about the downsides.

A separate 2016 study from Bell and his team found that 36% of high school athletes classified as highly specialized, training in one sport for more than eight months a year — and that those athletes were two to three times more likely to suffer a hip or knee injury.

Tennis faces a similar situation:

Players kept dropping out — that’s all Jayanthi knew for sure. It was happening at four prestigious national tournaments for elite tennis players ages 12-18. There, players who played more than four matches — often at least one per day over a span of four consecutive days — were more than twice as likely to pull out of the tournament before their fifth match for medical reasons than those who didn’t advance that far.

Soon thereafter, they examined about 530 high-level tennis players aged 12 to 18 in the Midwest. One of the first findings was the majority of these athletes — about 70% — had specialized in tennis, and the average age that they’d begun doing so was 10 years old. They also found that those who had begun specializing in tennis at a young age were 1.5 times more likely to report an injury than those who hadn’t specialized. One year later, they began what would become the largest clinical study of its kind, following about 1,200 young athletes — the average age was 13 and a half — across all sports in the Chicago area for up to three years. Roughly two-thirds of that group had visited local sports medicine clinics with injuries; the other third were uninjured and attended primary care clinics, largely for annual sports physicals. The goal: compare the injured to the uninjured, over a period of three years, and see what the numbers revealed.

Their conclusion: Those who were highly specialized in one sport (at the exclusion of other sports) and played it year-round were at a significantly higher risk for serious overuse injuries, such as bone and cartilage injuries and ligament injuries. How much higher of a risk? About 125%.

All because they thought they were on ‘roids

Saturday, July 20th, 2019

Steroids work — in part because lifters expect them to work:

When someone goes “on,” they have been fully convinced that the drugs are going to make a huge difference in their training and their results. Those expectations are the critical issue though — those expectations are doing just as much work as the steroids themselves.

I’ll reference and expand briefly on two landmark studies regarding the placebo effect and steroids. If you’d like to look them up, here are the citations:

Ariel et. Al. (1972) “Anabolic Steroids: The Physiological Effects of Placebos,” Medicine and Science in Sports, vol. 4, 124–26.

Maganaris et. Al. (2000) “Expectancy effects and strength training: do steroids make a difference?” Sport psychologist, vol. 14, no. 3, 272–278.

In the first study, fifteen male lifters were put on a strength training plan, and were told that the ones who made the best progress during the first phase of training on seated shoulder press, military press, and bench press (researchers confirmed for being gym-bros in lab coats. Just saying…) would be chosen to use steroids for four weeks to evaluate their effects.

So, these guys trained as hard as they could for 4 weeks to get free, legal roids. The 6 guys who made the best progress gained an average of 11kg between the three lifts, and were selected for the “steroid” trial.

They were told they were being given 10 mg/day of Dianabol, but, in fact, they were given a placebo pill.

So, they made similar gains to the first phase, right? Maybe a little extra because of the placebo effect?

Nope.

They gained an average of 45 kg (about 100 pounds) between their three lifts. They didn’t report the breakdown per lift, but that’s probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 pounds on the bench, and 30 apiece on seated and military press. That’s in contrast to 24 pounds TOTAL in the first four weeks between all three lifts.

All because they thought they were on ‘roids.

Second example:

Eleven national level powerlifters were given a saccharine pill before they maxed on squat, bench, and deadlift. They were told that it was a fast-acting steroid

They immediately beat their old PRs by an average of about 4–5% (and since we’re talking about national level lifters, that means we’re probably talking about at least 50–100 pounds on their total).

They were given more sham “steroids” for the next two weeks of training, after which they maxed again. Except…

Five were informed that they’d been taking a placebo the whole time, while six still believed they were taking legit steroids.

The five who knew the truth regressed back to their old “pre-steroid” maxes. They couldn’t even hit the PRs they’d set two weeks before, even though they knew that they were drug-free for those maxes too! They didn’t just fail to make more placebo gains — they lost their initial gains as well.

This was in spite of the fact that they’d reported lifting heavier weights in the gym or doing more reps with certain weights during the two intervening weeks. They knew their training was going better, they knew they’d hit bigger lifts drug-free before, but they just couldn’t put up as heavy of weights knowing that they didn’t have drugs in their systems.

The six who still thought they were juicing managed to hit new PRs again!

So, from these studies, we see people who got “steroid-like gains” in spite of the fact that they never took steroids. They merely thought they did.

Now, obviously steroids do play a role. They do, absolutely, “work.” However, we have to keep in mind that they don’t just “work” via physiological mechanisms — they also “work” by altering peoples’ expectations.

America is losing its grip

Thursday, July 18th, 2019

America is losing its grip — literally:

When she was a practicing occupational therapist, Elizabeth Fain started noticing something odd in her clinic: Her patients were weak. More specifically, their grip strengths, recorded via a hand-held dynamometer, were “not anywhere close to the norms” that had been established back in the 1980s.

[...]

In a study published in 2015 in The Lancet, the health outcomes of nearly 140,000 people across 17 countries were tracked over four years, via a variety of measures—including grip strength. Grip strength was not only “inversely associated with all-cause mortality”—every 5 kilogram (kg) decrement in grip strength was associated with a 17 percent risk increase—but as the team, led by McMaster University professor of medicine Darryl Leong, noted: “Grip strength was a stronger predictor of all-cause and cardiovascular mortality than systolic blood pressure.”

Grip strength has even been found to be correlated more robustly with “ageing markers” than chronological aging itself. It has become a key method of diagnosing sarcopenia, the loss of muscle mass associated with aging. Low grip strength has been linked to longer hospital stays, and in a study of hospitalized cancer patients, it was linked to a “an approximate 3-fold decrease in probability of discharge alive.” In older subjects, lower grip strength has even been linked with declines in cognitive performance.

“I’ve seen people refer to it as a ‘will-to-live’ meter,” says Richard Bohannon, a professor of health studies at North Carolina’s Campbell University. Grip strength, he suggests, is not necessarily an overall indicator of health, nor is it causative—if you start building your grip strength now it does not ensure you will live longer—“but it is related to important things.” What’s more, it’s non-invasive, and inexpensive to measure. Bohannon notes that in his home-care practice, a grip strength test is now de rigueur. “I use it in basically all of my patients,” he says. “It gives you an overall sense of their status, and high grip strength is better than low grip strength.”

Grip Strength vs. Age

Curious about what that all of that means for my own grip strength, I went out and bought a Jamar Hydraulic Hand Dynamometer, which is favored by clinicians. My strength rang in at nearly 62 kgs which, according to a chart of normative grip strengths in the Jamar’s manual, was above the mean for males 45-49, but not hugely outside the standard deviation. In that data, my age group did worse than the 20-24 age group, like you’d expect.

What was surprising was that my grip strength came in at 40 percent above a group of contemporary male college students that Fain measured last year. She found that a group of males aged 20-24—ages that had produced some of the peak mean grip strength scores in the 1980s tests—had a mean grip strength of just 44.7 kgs, well below my own and far below the same cohort in the 1980s, whose mean was in the low 50s. There were also significant declines in female grip strength.

I just dug out my dynamometer, and I may need to dig out my Captains of Crush grip trainers, too.