One of the more vivid memories I have of my late grandmother is the exhausted grunt that she’d exhale along with each and every movement, no matter how seemingly effortless or undemanding.
I brood over this hollow sound every now and then, replaying it like a cassette tape in my brain, contemplating both its meaning and purpose. Knowing what kind of person my grandmother was, it could have been her way of perpetually announcing to the world that she was officially done with this shit. Knowing this is a noise that many people eventually come to produce, it could also be the universal sound a human makes after being forced to wake up for a maddening job in a maddening world filled with maddening people a few too many times — the only sound a timeworn person can manage in order to express their deep-rooted apathy after being so forcibly beaten down by society.
But these are just my own cheerful guesses! For a more professional opinion, I reached out to veteran primary care physician Marc Leavey. “I was watching professional tennis the other day, and you could hear the grunts from the players,” he remarks. “Supposedly, that grunt goes along with a more powerful hit.”
Interestingly enough, science has confirmed that grunting can increase performance in both tennis players and athletes more broadly. One 2014 study found that grunting increased the serve and forehand velocity of college tennis players by an average of 4.5 miles per hour, while another study performed that same year found that grunting could increase the broad-jump distance of an athlete by an average of 5.2 percent compared to exhalation alone.
Why exactly the grunting subjects in these studies were able to conjure up more strength remains up for debate, but Drexel University Health Sciences Program researcher Sinclair Smith, who performed a similar study on the effects of grunting on athletes, offered up this theory in a 2014 interview: “Our hypothesis is that yelling may activate the autonomic nervous system, which is the nervous system that controls the fight-or-flight response — that feeling you get when you become startled or scared, that adrenaline rush that a lot of people speak of. And that may help the muscle contractions be more complete and more forceful.”
Of course, my retired grandmother was neither playing tennis nor broad jumping when she would discharge her shallow grunts, but you can see how someone who has experienced the loss of muscle strength that inevitably comes with age could benefit from any extra vigor a brief grunt might provide. “As you age, you may need an extra bit of energy to get up from a chair or roll out of bed,” Leavey explains. “Grunting may help give you that additional kick to be able to accomplish the task.”
This loss of muscle strength, accompanied by the reduction of lubricating fluids inside your joints that happens over time, also lends itself to older people having poor balance, at least compared to their younger selves, and grunting can provide some much-needed trunk stability. This is the result of what medical professionals call the Valsalva Maneuver — named after Italian anatomist Antonio Valsalva — where we compulsively close the vocal folds of our larynx to seal off our respiratory tract, which results in a grunt and normalizes the pressure in our inner ears, providing a slightly enhanced degree of trunk stability.
Chiropractor Robert Hayden tells me how this might apply to an action as simple as getting up from the couch: “Rising from a chair calls upon core strength of the abdominal muscles. The older you are, the more likely you are to have had those muscles ravaged by time — the muscles that would be used to pull yourself to a seated position from recumbent, or to a standing position from seated, are weakened. Sometimes, when straining with this kind of effort, people hold their breath in an attempt to augment muscle strength. This may produce a grunting sound when breathing is resumed.”
To that end, the likelihood of developing the likes of arthritis and other painful ailments also increases as we get older, and that can make even the simplest movements arduous. Much like how grunting can provide strength and stability, science also suggests that it can ease pain. “It may reflect some discomfort, particularly in our joints or backs, where pain triggers a grunt as a response,” says Leavey. Likewise, if someone even thinks a task is going to be difficult, which could certainly become a more common occurrence the more life you live, science suggests a higher likelihood of grunting when performing said task.
Finally, it could be possible that humans simply have some evolutionary reason for vocalizing their movements through grunting, something that becomes habitual as time goes on. “Sometimes it’s just a habit done without thinking,” Leavey reiterates. “I even recall one of my children issuing a meaningful, ‘Oy’ when crouching down to sit on the floor, and she was two years old at the time!”
Whatever the case, as I grow older and life beats me down, I continue to come a little closer to understanding what my grandmother was trying to convey with each of her grunts — and if she was indeed done with this shit, her grunts said much more than words ever could.