August 15, 2016 at 7:00 AM
A man's hands say a lot about him. My own father, at 66, still has the calloused, gnarled hands of a guy who did competitive weightlifting in college and spent much of his career grappling with 1,500-pound dairy cattle as a large animal veterinarian. I, on the other hand, have the soft palms of a modern-day desk jockey. My hands are delicate, well-moisturized, and prone to blisters if I spend too much time in the garden.
And I'm not the only one. A new study in press at the Journal of Hand Therapy (yes, a real thing) finds that millennial men may have significantly weaker hands and arms than men the same age did 30 years ago.
Researchers measured the grip strength (how strongly you can squeeze something) and pinch strength (how strongly you can pinch something between two fingers) of 237 healthy full-time students aged 20 to 34 at universities in North Carolina. And especially among males, the reduction in strength compared to 30 years ago was striking.
The average 20-to-34-year-old today, for instance, was able to apply 98 pounds of force when gripping something with his right hand. In 1985, the average man could squeeze with 117 pounds of force.
Now, there is a caveat here. The participants in the North Carolina study were recruited from college and university settings, so they're not representative of the population as a whole. If you were to look exclusively at young adults who never went to college, for instance, you might get different results.
The 1985 study wasn't nationally representative either. It was built using volunteers from an area around Milwaukee. Many of those volunteers in the 20-to-34 age range were recruited from a university setting.
The North Carolina findings generally comport with what other research has shown. For instance, a 2013 study found that children today are less physically fit than they were 30 years ago. And the grip strength numbers reported in the North Carolina study are similar to numbers reported in a nationally-representative sample of adults the same age, although the two studies are not directly comparable because of differences in methodology.
In the North Carolina study, the differences over time were least pronounced among older millennials (ages 30 to 34), who squeezed with 11 fewer pounds of pressure than men in that age group squeezed in 1985. The biggest deficit was seen among men ages 25 to 29, who could only grip with 25 pounds fewer force than their forebears.
Modern-day men's deficiencies in pinching pressure were less pronounced, but still observable.
Grip strength isn't quite the same thing as benching 200 pounds or doing a set of squats. But researchers have found it to be a great predictor of a lot of other strength and health related outcomes. So it's a useful proxy for overall muscular strength.
Millennial women fared much less worse in the study. Their average right-hand grip force is roughly the same today as it was 30 years ago, at about 75 pounds. Millennial women between 30 to 34 actually squeezed much harder than their forebears did, coming in at 98 pounds of force compared to 79 pounds in 1985. But this was offset by decreases in strength among younger millennial women.
To look at it another way: In 1985, the typical 30-to-34-year-old man could squeeze your hand with 31 pounds more force than the typical woman of that age could. But today, older millennial men and women are roughly equal when it comes to grip strength.
So what's going on here: a crisis of masculinity? A mass-effiminization of the American male? Not exactly. The biggest driver, as alluded to above, is likely changes in Americans' work habits. In the 1980s, men were more likely to be employed in jobs involving manual labor than they are today. Less daily physical activity means less overall strength — and incidentally, more weight gain, too.
The study doesn't show the same decline among women partially because women were less likely to be doing jobs involving manual labor to begin with, and also because women's labor force participation has increased since the 1980s. Changes in women's daily physical activity over the past 30 years appear to be much less drastic than changes for men. And those changes are reflected in these measurements of strength.
This all may have implications for the current generation's health outcomes down the road. Grip strength is a strong predictor of mortality in later life. If decreases in grip strength are reflective of an overall trend toward less physical activity, we may start to see that show up in changes in male life expectancy.
Already, American life expectancy numbers are starting to plateau and decline. If these strength numbers are any indication, we might expect life spans to shrink even further in the coming years.