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Last week, we discussed why traditional vital signs might not be a great predictor of long-term health and wellbeing. Today, we’re covering some alternative vital signs that may be a better predictor for longevity and overall health. 

Here are three alternative vital signs that you can easily measure and test today: 

  1. 1. The speed at which you walk.  This can be an effective predictor of health status.  The Journal of the American Medical Association studied 35,000 people over the age of 65.  Those who could walk faster than 2.6 feet/second or one mile in 33 minutes were likely to hit the average life expectancy of 78 years.  With every speed increase of ~4 inches per second, the chance of dying in the next decade fell by 12 percent.  Makes you want to take up speed walking, doesn’t it?  

2.  The strength of a person’s grip.In 2018, Strand and colleagues studied 500,000 middle aged people and found that conditions such as lung cancer and heart disease were well predicted by a person’s grip strength.  It was a better predictor of mortality than blood pressure or overall physical activity.  Another study by Celis-Morales and colleagues found that grip strength of people in their 80’s positively predicted the likelihood of making it past the age of 100.  This is something to consider the next time you go to open a jar.  

3.  Ability to perform a push up.  In 2019, The Journal of the American Medical Association made headlines with a study about push up ability predicting heart disease.  Stefanos Kale, a professor at Harvard Medical Schoo, reported that the leading cause of death in fire fighters is not smoke inhalation or burns, but sudden cardiac death usually caused by coronary heart disease.  Even in a high risk profession like fire fighting, people are likely to die of the same thing as everyone else.  Micheal Joyner of the Mayo Clinic reports that the push up study demonstrates the idea that whole body exercise capacity may be a better predictor of longevity and is an example of an alternative metric that could be used amongst others as options for evaluating work readiness and health.

Health not simply about push ups, walking speed, or grip strength, but these abilities can provide us with valuable information to further assess health.  Hamblin reports that individuals with higher push up capacity were more likely to have low blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar.  They were also less likely to smoke.  People with lower grip strength were more likely to smoke, have higher waist circumference and body fat percentage, watch more TV, and eat fewer fruits and vegetables.  If we have to choose a single simple universal measurement to define health, push-ups, walking speed, or grip strength may be a better contender than BMI, Hamblin contends.  

A good measurement should be measurable, meaningful, actionable, and durable according to Hamblin.  Body weight and BMI aren’t always meaningful or actionable.  Metrics like blood work, saliva testing, or DNA testing are valuable but can be more expensive and challenging to repeat and retest in shorter periods of time in order to measure progress.   Only 20-30% of Americans can do a single push up.  Most people, with the exception of those suffering from shoulder dysfunction, are likely able to achieve a number closer to 30-40 with daily practice and consistency—resulting in an actionable metric. 

A greater concept to consider, according to Joyner and Hamblin, is doing things that produce short term gains can result in a domino effect.  What does that mean? If reading this post persuades you to start doing push ups, it’s a statement about your general conscientiousness and motivation.  It also affects many other health behaviors.  People who tend to follow guidelines, eat well, etc. tend to engage in other healthy behaviors.  Conscientious types of behavior are also predictors of mortality, as is fitness itself, Joyner reports.  This behavior is more focused on what the body can achieve not just body image itself.  Conscientiousness means seeing the connection between how you live and what happens later.  Push ups help build conscientiousness, Hamblin comments.  

This sort of metric also equips people to change their mentality in a health care system that teaches that healing comes from a pill, procedure, or surgery (Hamblin, 2019).  The marketing and sale of medicine today in this country does not support conscientiousness, but functional metrics of health can help to bring conscientiousness back into contemporary health care. 

In many cases, what is limiting you in these alternative vital signs is likely changeable.  Want to be able to do more push-ups or have a stronger grip strength? Do you want the endurance or balance to be able to walk faster? Physical therapists, like those at Rebalance Physical Therapy, can help you improve in these metrics and improve in your overall well being. We want to help you optimize your longevity!  



Hamblin, James.  The Power of One Push Up.  Health. July 27, 2019.  

Strand, Bjorn H et al. (2016). The association of grip strength from midlife onwards with all-cause and cause specific mortality over 17 years of follow up in the Tromso study.  Journal of Epidemilogy and Community Health. 7(6).

Celis-Morales, Carlos A et al.  (2018). Associations of grip strength with cardiovascular, respiratory, and cancer outcomes and all cause mortality; prospective cohort study of half a million UK Biobank participants. BMJ. 2018; 361; k1651.

Written by Stephanie Muntzer, MPT, CPI

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