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Stretching May Promote Heart Health, Lower Diabetes Risk

woman stretching
A recent study suggests stretches can help improve vascular function.

Marko Geber / DigitalVision / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • A recent study suggests passive stretches can help improve vascular function and reduce arterial stiffness.
  • Improving this functionality is an important part of maintaining cardiovascular health as well as preventing as other conditions.
  • If you're looking to add these types of stretches to your workout routine, a trainer suggests doing them after you exercise rather than before.

Stretching as part of exercise warmup and cool-down has long been advised by trainers and coaches for better athletic performance, but a recent study in the Journal of Physiology suggests that passive stretching (PS) could offer heart health benefits as well.

Researchers recruited 39 participants (20 men and 19 women) and randomly assigned them to one of three groups: a non-stretching control group, a unilateral (same side stretching) group, and a bilateral (both sides) group. Both stretching groups performed four specific leg stretches five days a week for 12 weeks for a total of 60 sessions. The unilateral group performed the stretches just on the right side for 20 minutes whereas the bilateral group performed the exercises on both sides of the body for 40 minutes.

Those stretches were:

  • Half-kneeling quad stretch (hip extension with knee flexion)
  • Standing quad stretch (standing hip extension with knee flexion)
  • Standing heel-drop stretch (with ankle in dorsiflexion)
  • Supine hamstring stretch (hip flexion with straight leg and ankle dorsiflexion)

The stretches were passive (sometimes referred to as static), which means they held each stretch for 45 seconds, took a 15 second rest, and then held a stretch again. Participants did a set of five holds for each stretch until the duration of their session was completed.

After 12 weeks, those in both stretching groups showed better blood flow in the lower legs and upper arms compared to the control group, and also compared to their blood flow at the start of the study period. This improvement in blood flow (vascular function) is important for cardiovascular health, researchers concluded, and can help lower risk for major health issues like heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

Stiff Muscles, Stiff Arteries, Big Problems

Vascular function is the ability of an artery to dilate and constrict, and it's considered an important marker for determining cardiovascular health. Changes in this type of function often precede an increase in arterial stiffness, which can have a negative impact on the cardiovascular system, leading to issues like:

  • Hypertension/high blood pressure
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Renal disease
  • Kidney disease

A study in the journal Hypertension found that aerobic exercise has a demonstrable effect on reducing arterial stiffness, even with a modest amount of activity such as cycling three times a week for 30 minutes per session. Not only can exercise reduce arterial stiffness, the study noted, it can also help reduce inflammation.

But it's not just the heart that can be affected by poor vascular function, according to Scott Kaiser, MD, geriatrician and director of geriatric cognitive health at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif. There's also a strong correlation between vascular function and brain health, he says.

Scott Kaiser, MD

When your vascular system is not operating as well as it should, that absolutely affects the brain, because it depends on blood flow.

— Scott Kaiser, MD

That can lead to numerous cognition issues, such as vascular dementia, a condition caused by improper blood flow to the brain. Introducing simple stretches may be a good way to get started with improving vascular function overall and reap other health benefits along the way.

How to Get Started

The stretches detailed in the recent research are easy to do, anytime and anywhere, especially those you can do while standing. But if you're incorporating stretches like these into a larger workout routine—which is advisable—it's helpful to know best practices for timing, suggests trainer Aaron Leventhal, CSCS, owner of Minneapolis-based Fit Studio.

Passive stretching, like what the researchers had studied, is best done after a workout during a cool-down sequence, Leventhal says, because muscles become fatigued and shortened during exercise. However, this type of stretching isn't always advisable before a workout, and can sometimes come with consequences. What's commonly known as "stretch-induced strength loss" can have a negative effect on overall performance and has been a subject of debate among sports medicine experts in recent decades.

In fact, a 2012 review of 104 studies tracked whether static stretching (SS) had any hinderance on athletic strength or performance. Static stretching greater than or equal to 45 seconds, when performed as the sole activity during a warm-up routine, saw more negative effects, while quicker, dynamic (or isometric) stretches had less of an impact on performance. The researchers concluded that static stretching alone prior to a workout should be avoided.

Instead, many experts will advise incorporating some dynamic stretching into your pre-workout routine. Leventhal says this type of stretching relies on movement instead of holding a stretch passively. Ideally, he adds, you'll want to "stretch" in a way that is similar to the exercises you're about to do. For example, if you're going to do a high-intensity interval session, dynamic stretching would involve gentler versions of what's included, like lunges, high kicks, and hip stretches with a twist.

By focusing on stretching optimally in a way that's tailored to your workout regimen, you can improve your performance, and, as the recent study notes, you may be getting a heart health boost at the same time.

What This Means For You

Regardless of age, body type, or fitness level, stretching is one of the most accessible ways to get your body moving. It costs nothing, can be done anywhere, and won't take up much of your time. If you aren't used to exercising, it's worth talking to your doctor about incorporating exercise and a properly-executed stretching regimen into your fitness routine.

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Article Sources
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