Get a Grip! Developing Strong Fingers and Hands

We do a lot of work with our fingers and hands that we often take for granted. Even as I write (type) this, I am relying on the dexterity and coordination of my fingers to form the words and sentences. Although my amateur typist’s approach may not be the most impressive display of such skills, it still requires that I have the appropriate level of mobility in my fingers to accomplish the task.

As far as our hands go, consider all the repetitive movements that we perform with them – picking things up, carrying things, opening jars, twisting doorknobs, pushing or pulling doors open/closed. This is not an exhaustive list, by any means, but it provides a little reminder of the importance of having good mobility and grip strength in our hands. 

As we age, we do not necessarily lose the know-how to complete these tasks, but we do lose hand/finger strength and dexterity. This is particularly relevant if we become affected by osteoarthritis or other inflammatory conditions. We all want to retain our independence for as long as possible. A large part of this depends on our ability to perform the mundane daily activities such as opening a jar and carrying our groceries into the house from the car without difficulty.

These abilities can be maintained quite easily if regularly trained. Here are a few ways to improve and maintain the strength and mobility of your fingers and hands:

  • Grip Trainers – These squeeze-it type tools have been around for many years, but they do work. I recommend that when using these, you include sets where you squeeze and hold for time as well as conventional repetitions. Here is a product from Amazon.com and here’s one from Amazon.co.uk.

  • Pull-Ups/Chin-Ups – Any form of pulling movement will improve grip strength, but body weight movements are especially functional in this case as they are relative to your own body mass. If you are not yet at the point of performing full repetitions, you can try negatives (get in the top position with assistance, lower yourself under control) or just try hanging in the bottom position for as long as you can and try to increase your time.

  • Fingertip Push-Ups – Performing the traditional push-up – only this time on your fingertips instead of with palms flat – will challenge your finger strength. If you’re not yet ready for the full push-up, you can try this kneeling or even on a wall first.

  • Dumbbell Wrist Curls – Wrist curls will develop the forearm muscles which assist with grip strength. Siting in a chair, hold a dumbbell and rest your forearm on your leg with the dumbbell hanging off the edge of your knee. Without moving your forearm, curl your wrist up so that the dumbbell comes towards your body. Do this with your palm facing both up and down.

  • Pinch Carrying – Take two barbell plates, choosing a light weight at first. Pick up a plate in each hand by pinching close to the top and walk a distance of your choosing. This is an excellent way to develop finger strength. As you progress, you can either walk the same distance as before with a heavier weight, or you can walk a longer distance with the same weight.

  • Odd Object/Oversized Carrying – Testing and pushing your limits of grip can also be done by trying to carry oddly shaped objects or maxing out the capacity of your hand size. For example, you could try holding onto as many golf balls as you can in one hand or picking up an obscurely shaped rock without letting it slip.

The Importance of Resistance Training for Older Adults

Resistance training comes in many forms – free weights, machine weights, body weight training, using bands or tubes, suspension training, to name a few. There are some more obscure, non-structured types but generally when we talk about resistance training, we are referring to a more structured program that incorporates repetitions, sets, etc. Not everyone enjoys the idea or practice of following a rigorous regimen of weightlifting, but to find a routine that is manageable is a hugely beneficial addition to your health.

As we age beyond maturity, bone density and strength will naturally decline. This puts us at a greater risk of falls and injuries related to bone mass weakness in old age. Without resistance training, it is difficult to defend against this. It also becomes more difficult to recover from an injury. If you have been active and have effectively strengthened bones and improved stability around the joints, you will find that recovery comes much sooner.

My own experience with resistance training comes from a background of sports, where having strength and muscle mass was an advantage on the rugby pitch or wrestling mat. However, I completely understand that if you have not had the need for this, or simply have not been athletically inclined in the past, it can be difficult to find the motivation to start lifting weights regularly. I believe that the key to beginning, adopting, and maintaining a resistance program is understanding how it can improve your life and make the day-to-day easier, especially as we age.

Here are some great reasons to adopt a regular resistance training program:

  • Bone Density – As previously mentioned, resistance training increases bone density. Due to the need to compensate for an external resistance being applied during weightlifting, bone growth is stimulated. For older adults this means stronger bones that are less prone to fractures.

  • Joint Stability – A balanced weight training routine will incorporate movements or exercises involving all the joints in the body. This will strengthen and stabilize the connective tissues – tendons, ligaments – and the joint capsules, which will also improve flexibility and ease of movement.

  • Self-Confidence and Quality of Life – Feeling and physically being stronger boosts self-confidence. This will help to alleviate some of the hesitation that you may have when approaching new activities. When we feel more confident, we participate at a higher level and enjoy our lives much more.

  • Activities of Daily Living – A regular resistance training program will make activities of daily living – carrying groceries, gardening, housekeeping etc. – much easier. The lifting, bending, stretching, and twisting involved in these day-to-day tasks is something that shouldn’t necessarily feel like a workout in and of itself.

  • Body Composition – Lifting weights helps to increase lean muscle mass which boosts metabolic rate and contributes to a healthier body composition. When we are leaner, we burn more calories at rest since muscle is more metabolically active than fat. This makes it less daunting to achieve or maintain a healthy body weight. Resistance training, for this reason, should always be part of a weight loss plan.

Getting Active: Starting Out on the Right Path

Often, when starting out on an exercise routine, we tend to dive in head-first without much thought given to the mapping out of what we want to achieve. This is especially true around New Year’s when we make a resolution to implement drastic changes to our lifestyle and/or exercise habits. Thought these sentiments are well-intended, it’s often a knee-jerk response to over indulgences in the festive season. Time for planning and goal setting takes the back seat to the need for instant action to be taken. If this sounds familiar, don’t dismay. You just need a nudge in the right direction.

The reality is that proper planning, with the caveat that patience is required, will set you up for long-term success and not just a short-term feeling of satisfaction. Unfortunately, in the case of New Year’s exercise resolutions, there is a steep drop off a few weeks or months into a new regimen. The reason for this is simply because it’s usually a case of too much too soon without adequate planning. A failure to prepare, after all, can be a preparation for failure.

Here are some easy ways for you to combat this:

  • Set S.M.A.R.T. Goals: This simple acronym - which stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-Bound – is a great way to establish both a reasonable goal and a timeline within which you can achieve it. For example, rather than saying “I want to lose weight” it would better to say “I’d like to lose a stone (14 pounds) by 14 weeks from today”. This sets the stage for the achievement of a specific and realistic one pound a week in weight loss, which can be measured weekly for progress, and gives a definite and achievable timeline.

  • Develop Social Accountability: Make your goals public, if appropriate to do so, or at least share them with someone who will help to keep you accountable. If you make a goal and keep it to yourself, it is easy to lose the motivation to put in the work. Telling someone else, or informing a wider audience, will help to provide a little extra extrinsic (external) motivation which can really boost your efforts and keep you on track.

  • Befriend Like-Minded Individuals: Misery loves company, right? So too does success and aspiration! If you spend time with people who sit around and mope, you’re likely to do the same. Get out there and spend time with folks who also want to make positive and healthy changes. Join or start a walking group, sign up for group fitness classes, attend a seminar about healthy eating, the list of possibilities is endless. The main thing to remember is that if you maintain a mindset that is focused on change, the change will happen.

  • Eating for Success: Nutritional tweaking is inevitable, but don’t look at making healthy eating changes as “starting a diet”. In fact, remove this word from your vocab altogether. The word ‘diet’ implies a short-term change. Instead, plan to “eat healthier”. Throw away the temptations and keep the quick healthy snacks within reach. Eat fresh, whole, colourful, fibre and protein-rich foods, and minimize saturated fat and sugar. Make meals for multiple days - bulk prep is a godsend in times when you get home and are searching the fridge for a healthy option in a hurry.