Study led by UND star athlete finds gains in children’s grip strength worldwide

Young peoples’ grip strength has gone up significantly since 1967, concludes study led by Faith Dooley, volleyball star at UND

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As a UND athlete, Faith Dooley was a standout. She was a four-time all-Big Sky volleyball selection and the first-ever UND player to earn all-conference honors in four seasons, to list just a few of her Fighting Hawks honors.

Now, the 2017 graduate is emerging as an academic research standout as well. For Dooley’s thesis project for her 2019 UND master’s degree in kinesiology has been published in Sports Medicine, a top-ranking journal.

Dooley is the lead author on the study, which brings together one of the largest datasets on handgrip strength ever assembled to estimate national and international trends among children and adolescents.

By systematically analyzing data from 2.2 million children and adolescents from 19 countries on five continents, Dooley and her co-authors estimated that since 1967, handgrip strength has improved substantially. And because handgrip strength is significantly associated with current and future health, the roughly 20 percent improvement that the team describes may be a “good news” indicator of global trends in young people’s health.

The figure of 2.2 million is key, said Grant Tomkinson, professor in the Department of Education, Health and Behavior Studies at UND and senior author of the study.

“You can see the enormous size of the sample: 2.2 million kids in 19 countries,” Tomkinson said. “This was a massive undertaking and a very difficult task. But as a result, it paints a very comprehensive picture. And it’s probably going to be highly cited in almost the first line in future studies, as researchers now will be applying for grants to try to better understand this finding and to try to further improve health through improved muscle strength.”

Faith Dooley, center, shown here in her role as middle hitter on UND’s 2014-17 volleyball teams, is the lead author on a study published in Sports Medicine, a top-ranking journal. Image courtesy of Russ Hons/UND Athletics.

Aiming high

Here’s another key phrase from the above: master’s degree thesis project.

“Sports Medicine is ranked second out of 83 sports-science journals by Web of Science, which indexes journals by their impact factor,” Tomkinson said.

Grant Tomkinson

“Publication in this journal is an unbelievable achievement for anyone, most especially as the first publication for a master’s student. As an athlete and now as a researcher, Faith is a rock star, and we’re very proud of her.”

During her time at UND, Dooley worked as an assistant strength and conditioning coach. She also served as a head coach in the Grand Forks Stars Volleyball Club.

“And as I worked with college and especially high-school athletes, I remembered where I’d been at that age, and I wondered how young people’s strength and posture have changed over time,” she said.

“That’s where I developed the idea of looking at strength all over the world. Are young people weaker or stronger than they used to be? That’s what I wanted to find out.”

Handgrip strength, Dooley learned, is quick, easy and inexpensive to measure, making it a basic measure of musculoskeletal function that researchers have turned to for decades. Moreover, grip strength is not only a screening tool for measuring overall strength, but also a useful predictor of future health conditions. For example, a person’s grip strength as an adolescent is linked to their chances of developing or dying from chronic diseases later in life.

Dooley’s two-year-long project began with her searching the literature for studies that measured young people’s grip strength. Then, using a protocol that she and her team developed, “we extracted the data from all of those studies, combined the averages by country and analyzed it,” she said.

“It was a lot of sitting at a computer, searching for studies and collecting the data. But I loved the sense of discovery that was involved — the awareness that we might be uncovering something new.”

Dooley also played for the Fighting Hawks basketball team in her junior and senior years and was named the team’s captain as a senior. Image courtesy of Russ Hons/UND Athletics.

‘Substantial improvement’

The result, in the words of the study: “There has been a substantial improvement in absolute handgrip strength for children and adolescents since 1967.”

That was unexpected, Dooley said. Previous work on other forms of childhood fitness — notably, aerobic fitness — had shown declines over 30 years, with perhaps some stabilization over the past decade or so.

So, Dooley at first thought that handgrip strength would follow a similar pattern.

Instead, handgrip strength had risen, the study showed. And as Tomkinson explained, “we’re not exactly sure why that might be.”

It’s possible that handgrip strength is up because young people simply are bigger and stronger than they used to be. The fact that young people are maturing earlier also could play a role, as could the increasing awareness — especially in developed countries — of both the importance of childhood fitness and the key role of muscular strength.

The likeliest cause is the interplay of all of those things. “So, this could be a bit of a win and a small victory for government guidelines, which now recommend that kids take part in bone and muscle strengthening exercises several times each week,” Tomkinson said.

More research will be needed to answer that question; but maybe, just maybe, the guidelines, policies and fitness-promotion plans are starting to pay off.

During her time playing volleyball for UND, Dooley set the Big Sky Conference record for blocks in a career and is UND’s all-time career record holder for blocks.

She was a three-year captain of the volleyball team. In addition, she also played for the Fighting Hawks basketball team in her junior and senior years and was named the basketball team’s captain as a senior.

Today, she’s continuing her work in sports and athletics as the head volleyball coach at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn.

“Faith always was the perfect person to conduct this study,” Tomkinson said.

“She’s a champion athlete. She’s a strength coach and an athletic coach. She has the academic talent, and she’s a very good communicator.

“So it always seemed like just the right fit.”