In popular culture, a firm grip has long been associated with a macho image, but it turns out that an increased handgrip strength can help both women and men reduce the dangers associated with high blood pressure. According to the American Heart Association, an estimated 103 million Americans have high blood pressure, which it defines as being above 130/80. High blood pressure, known as hypertension in medical terms, increases the risk of stroke and usually increases as a problem with age.
The typical treatment for high blood pressure is pressure-reducing drugs such as beta blockers, or intensive aerobic exercise totaling 70 minutes a week, or both. But you may be concerned about side effects from medication, and/or not have the time for long workouts.
An alternative approach
For many years, doctors have known that increasing your hand grip strength often works just as well as meds.
In fact, in the early 1970s, two New York doctors published breakthrough papers that looked at the effects of intense, whole-body isometric exercise on blood pressure. Isometric exercise, which requires you to put a muscle in tension and hold it without moving, initially raised blood pressure when performed for brief periods. But when the exercise was continued over time, blood pressure actually began to fall and remain lower.
Then in 1992, Ronald Wiley, a pulmonologist at Miami University in Ohio, then devised a study that used only isometric handgrip exercise instead of the whole body. He had young men train with 30% of their maximum grip strength for two minutes, alternating hands after a brief rest.
The results were pretty dramatic: after eight weeks of the isometric exercises three times a week, the eight subjects had reductions of 12.5 in their systolic blood pressure (the top number given in your blood pressure) and 14.9 in their diastolic blood pressure.
Wiley’s experiment has since been repeated numerous times with similar good results. A meta-analysis of 18 studies, which looks at pooled data, by Danielle Bentley and colleagues at the University of Toronto concluded: “Handgrip exercise is an effective modality for resting BP reduction, resulting in clinically significant reductions for men and women of all ages.” Another meta-analysis by Australian doctors reached a similar conclusion.
Curiously, no one has been able to adequately explain why the handgrip exercise works so well. It simply does.
Getting your grip on
Ready to try handgrip exercises for yourself? It almost couldn’t be simpler: You need to squeeze some kind of resistance bar or band with one hand, for two minutes. Then rest for two minutes and switch to the other hand. Do two sets for each hand.
The challenge is figuring out your maximum amount of effort: To get the most effect from the exercise, you need to hold for the two minutes at 30% of your maximum effort.
There are now elaborate devices available, such as the Zona Plus ($599), which measure your maximum output and then displays your required grip strength on a small computer screen.
But the same can be achieved with a much less expensive device known as a hand dynamometer, which is available online for about $30. These are equipped with a squeezable handle and a liquid crystal digital display showing the force being used.
A British blogger has even posted a Youtube video showing exactly how to perform the exercise based in the published research.
And yes, the whole thing only requires eight minutes of squeezing. Grab your device and flip on the morning news, or read a few stories in the paper, and presto! you’re done.