Manual dexterity is the ability to use your hands and fingers to perform small, coordinated movements. Whether it’s picking up a fork, retrieving a dropped key, or threading a needle, manual dexterity is essential to daily life and may impact your ability to live independently if it deteriorates with age.
Why is manual dexterity important?
From holding a pencil to tying shoe laces, we rely on manual dexterity to perform the daily duties of everyday life. Unlocking your front door, chopping vegetables, or lifting a spoon all require a certain amount of coordination. We improve our fine motor skills as children (learning how to zip up jackets or use a paintbrush), and often hone them as adults (learning an instrument or knitting a scarf). Some professionals, like dentists, are even tested on manual dexterity when they apply to school.
Maintaining your fine motor skills helps to ensure you are able to perform essential parts of daily life independently as you age. Research shows that manual dexterity is influenced by age, as well as strength. Poor manual dexterity has been linked with a higher risk of memory problems and being able to pinch, grip, and squeeze is associated with good executive function as well. Although manual dexterity does tend to decline as we age, maintaining the strength in our hands can help prevent some of this from happening.
6 best dexterity exercises for seniors
Given its importance to everyday life, manual dexterity is something you want to maintain. Here are six exercises to improve fine motor skills in adults:
1. Finger lifts
Finger isolation is the ability to move just one finger at a time. This is useful when dialling a phone, pushing buttons on the remote control, or typing out an email. To make sure these skills stay sharp, do finger lifts throughout the day, such as when you sip your morning coffee, wait in line, or watch TV.
Lay your palm flat on a hard or soft surface, and focus on lifting each of your fingers one at a time. Repeat for 8-12 sets. You can do one hand at a time, or both hands at once. Pinky, ring, middle, index, thumb — it’s a simple activity that can make sure your digits are ready to move!
2. Finger opposition
Our pincer grasp helps perform skills like stacking coins, or flipping pages of a book. Exercise these skills with finger oppositions. With each hand, touch each fingertip to your thumb one at a time. Try to keep your other fingers pointing straight up, and your wrist relaxed. Then switch hands and repeat another 8-12 sets for each hand (feel free to exercise both hands simultaneously.)
You’ll find you practice the pincer grasp often in your day-to-day life. Planting seeds in your garden, picking berries, flipping the pages of a book, painting, or playing cards are all activities that use your pincer grasp.
3. Tendon glides
Tendon glides coax the muscles in your hands to expand their range of motion. Hold one hand up flat. Keep your fingers straight and bend at your bottom knuckle so your fingers are in a tabletop position. Flatten them again, then curl your fingers in so they touch the top of your palm. Flatten, then curl them to make a loose fist with your thumb out at the side. Then flatten your hand one more time, and bend the bottom two knuckles to reach for the base of your palm. Repeat 10 times on each hand.
4. Stress ball squeeze
This exercise looks exactly like it sounds. Using a foam ball, stress ball, beanbag or other squishy, palm-sized object (fruit may be a bad choice), squeeze as hard as you can without causing yourself pain. Hold for 5 seconds, then repeat 10 times with each hand.
This exercise helps maintain your ability to turn doorknobs and grip things without dropping them, and should be done a maximum of two to three times a week.
5. Thumb bends
Thumb bends help you to strengthen the muscles supporting your thumb’s joint. Hold your hand and fingers up straight. Then bring your thumb across your palm, so the tip of your thumb touches the base of your pinky finger. If it can’t reach that far, just bring your thumb down and inward, and hold for a few seconds. Repeat the activity 10 times. Then switch hands.
6. Finger walking
Place your hand and forearm flat on a table, counter, or another hard surface. To perform finger walking, start with your palm facing down and stretch your thumb away from your palm. Then one at a time, lift each finger, one at a time, toward your thumb, and place it down. Start with your index finger and finish with your pinky finger. Repeat two to three times with each hand.
Other ways to improve fine motor skills in adults
There are also plenty of other ways to improve manual dexterity as you age, including a number of hobbies you may already enjoy doing, as well as a variety of activities. These could include:
- Knitting, crochet, or needlepoint
- Playing an instrument
- Doing origami
- Eating with chopsticks
- Cooking or baking
- Beading or making jewelry
- Painting, drawing or doing crafts
- Sculpting with putty or manipulating clay
- Playing string games like cat’s cradle
- Writing letters, keeping a paper journal, or learning calligraphy
- Making a scrapbook or photo album
- Playing cards
You may also enjoy the benefit of improving manual dexterity through online workout classes for seniors that incorporate holding small weights or an exercise ball. With so many options available, it should be easy to work exercises into your day and ensure you maintain manual dexterity as you age.