Healthy Body

I’m a Longevity Expert and This Is Why Arm Strength Is So Important in the Long Run

Photo: Getty Images/Eugenio Marongiu
Working out your upper body isn't always glamorous. (Post-lift callouses, anyone?) Still, the benefits that come with factoring arm day into your gym routine actually go far past feeling stronger, being able to lift heavier things, and having the kind of toned arms that Michelle Obama would be proud of. Blue Zones experts and recent studies have found that arm strength is also linked to longevity. Yes, flexing your forearms and building your biceps can actually help you life a longer, healthier life.

How are arm strength and longevity connected?

Arm strength and longevity are linked in a variety of ways. First, a strong upper body means that certain tasks—for example, lifting a heavy box—may still feel more difficult in your 50s as compared to your 20s, but they wont feel as onerous. The muscles in our bodies weaken and atrophy as we age, so by building arm and grip strength, you will be able to live independently for longer. Stronger arms mean you'll be more likely to climb stairs and hold banisters without risk of falling, and you can stay active and social for longer—which is essential for maintaining good cognitive health and mental well-being.

Researchers from the British Medical Journal also found that when studying individuals' grip strength, those with stronger arms and hands were at less of a risk when it came to contracting cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, developing chronic ailments, and having many forms of cancer. However, despite this knowledge, grip strength is one of the least popular forms of strength training, according to a study published in the Clinical Interventions in Aging journal. Grip strength is a key biomarker when it comes to aging, says body performance and injury expert Rami Hashish, PhD, DPT.

A biomarker is a measurement or sign that provides an indication of our medical status in any given area. Think: walking speed, body mass index, waist circumference, and muscle mass. Because grip strength is associated with muscle strength in both the arms and legs, older adults with strong upper and lower bodies tend to have a stronger grip, Dr. Hashish says. "Unsurprisingly, individuals with better strength tend to also have better balance, bone density, and overall physical functioning," he adds.

There are a few different ways to asses your grip strength. The easiest way is to gauge your strength with a handheld dynamometer. That said, if you don't want to order yet another tool, you can also test your arm and grip strength by committing to an upper body exercise for a few months. "Track your progress," says Aaron Alexander, CR, CPT, a manual therapist and movement coach. "How many reps and how much weight are you increasing by each time you perform the exercise?"

What are ways that you can help build your arm strength daily?

The best way to avoid muscular atrophy as you age is to create a fitness routine that you can sustain for the long haul; it should have a good amount of variety to avoid fitness fatigue. One of the main reasons that our muscles weaken as we age is because we are using them less and less, so creating a steady strength training routine and prioritizing functional movements in your daily life can help slow or prevent the process.

Alexander suggests hanging from a pull-up bar for at least 90 seconds every day. "This simple exercise can drastically change the quality of your life," he says. "Not only does it help increase strength, it helps fix your posture, increases the mobility in your shoulders, and reduces shoulder/upper back pain."

Jamie Costello, MSC, Vice President of Sales and Fitness at the Pritikin Longevity Center, recommends closed chain exercises that coordinate the arms along with the other muscles of the body to promote functional movement patterns. "For example, a 'farmer’s walk' is one of our favorite exercises here at Pritikin," he says. "It requires a strong grip along with the legs, shoulders, and core muscles working in unison for an important real-life activity: picking up heavy objects and carrying them to a destination." Start "farming" today and you may see yourself living with better health for the rest of your days.

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