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How 12 Weeks of Stretching Can Improve Your Heart Health

Remember to stretch yourself every now and then, increase blood circulation and improve heart health

Just 12 weeks of passive stretching can help the vascular system and improve blood flow, according to a new study. Researchers from the University of Milan in Italy found that those who engaged in passive stretching had increased blood flow in their arteries and a decrease in artery stiffness. “Blood pressure was decreased, central and peripheral arterial stiffness was reduced, and vascular function was increased after 12 weeks of passive stretching training,” the authors of the study wrote. They note that this kind of stretching can improve a person’s heart health. Passive stretching is a stretch where an external force provides the stretch. This can be through a stretching partner, stretching accessories, or gravity. Active stretching doesn’t involve an external force.

What the study uncovered The researchers enlisted 39 healthy men and women and split them into two groups. One group was instructed to do leg stretches five times a week for 12 weeks, and the other group didn’t do any stretching. Those who stretched saw an improvement to their vascular system. The researchers say this could have implications for diseases that involve changes to blood flow, such as heart attack and stroke. “In this Italian study, there was a significant improvement in flow-mediated dilation, which can be thought of as the ability of an artery to dilate in response to an increase in blood flow,” said Jonathan Myers, PhD, a health research scientist and director of the Exercise Research Laboratory at the Palo Alto Veterans Affairs Health Care System in California. “A novel finding from this study was the fairly remarkable changes in vascular function simply by passive stretching,” Myers told Healthline. “This suggests that practitioners should routinely recommend stretching in addition to regular aerobic exercise for patients with vascular disease. The positive changes in arterial function by stretching were not as large as those generally considered to occur with aerobic exercise, but further studies are needed to determine the extent to which passive stretching can complement aerobic exercise.” If the findings of the study were replicated in people with vascular disease, researchers could determine whether passive stretching may be a suitable treatment for improving vascular health. “Exercise is one of the most effective ways to ensure healthy arteries, but a lot of the types of exercise that are most studied are cardiovascular focused such as running, walking, biking, swimming. This study is exciting because it shows similar benefits with non-cardio training,” said Dr. Nicole M. Weinberg, a cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “If this can be reproduced with vascular disease patients, perhaps it will change exercise programs, cardiac rehab, and other aspects of rehabilitation from vascular disease,” she told Healthline.

The dangers of vascular disease “Vascular disease” is a term used to describe any abnormal condition of the arteries or blood vessels. The vascular system in an adult is made up of 100,000 miles of blood vessels. Problems occurring within this system can be serious and cause pain, disability, or death. Stroke, blood clot (pulmonary embolism), and heart attack can occur when blood flow is affected by arteries that are damaged or not working well. “Good blood flow leads to reduced pressure within the system, leading to less damage on the wall of the artery. Reduction in blood flow due to artery/arteries not being compliant can lead to elevated blood pressure, which can increase risk of stroke and heart attack,” Dr. Sanjiv Patel, an interventional cardiologist at MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in California, told Healthline. Blood flow allows oxygenated blood to travel through the vascular system to tissues throughout the body. Without good blood flow, organs throughout the body are at risk. “Good flow helps bring oxygenated blood to all our tissues. It is critical to have good blood flow to ensure that all the organs are working properly. Things that interfere with this have to do with arterial stiffness and blockage. Stiffness and blockage come from high blood pressure, high cholesterol, inflammation,” Weinberg said. “Arterial stiffness is dangerous since once it sets in, it can be difficult to reverse. You want to address it early and work on mechanisms like stretching in the hopes of increasing the elasticity of the vessels,” she added.

How to improve your arteries Dr. Neica Goldberg, a cardiologist and director of the NYU Langone Center for Women’s Health, said it’s important that arteries are flexible and not stiff. “Arteries need to expand to deliver more blood to the heart muscle and muscles involved in activity during exercise or the abdominal arteries after a large meal. If they lose the ability to expand, it can provoke symptoms of chest pain or pain in the legs in people with peripheral artery disease,” she told Healthline. Aerobic exercise, weight loss, and treating high blood pressure can reduce stiffness in the arteries. Medications such as statins can also help with flexibility. “Regular exercise and keeping risk factors controlled are the most important things one can do ensure that arteries stay healthy. When disease is present, drugs can be helpful to dilate the arteries and to minimize pain if there is symptomatic peripheral vascular disease. The results from this study also suggest that stretching improves vascular function,” Myers said. “This is important because the general impression has long been that aerobic-type exercises were generally required to favorably impact the health of the arteries.” Emiliano Cè, PhD, an author on the paper, says that doing stretching could be beneficial for the vascular system during extended periods of confinement due to COVID-19. “This new application of stretching is especially relevant in the current pandemic period of increased confinement to our homes, where the possibility of performing beneficial training to improve and prevent heart disease, stroke, and other conditions is limited,” Ce said in a press release. But Goldberg says more research into stretching and its impact on the vascular system is needed. “Right now, the stretching study is promising, but more data is needed in people who have heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and other forms of vascular disease,” she said. “Stretching is not enough to prevent heart disease based on this study.”

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