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As long as you don’t do it before exercise
Doing simple stretches may improve blood flow throughout our body by making the arteries more flexible and able to dilate, according to a study in the July 1, 2020, Journal of Physiology.
More than 300 years ago, the great English physician Thomas Sydenham observed, "A man is as old as his arteries."
It's as accurate today as it was then. In fact you might consider that your health is only as good as your arteries since these blood vessels carry vital oxygen-rich blood to all of our body's tissues.
Stretching before exercise increases your risk of injury
We know two important everyday things about stretching:
Now, there is a third "everyday" thing to know about stretching, which makes it something that we might do more often. We know that regular exercise is one of the best ways to maintain artery health. But it turns out that mere static stretching also helps considerably.
Arterial stiffness is associated with musculoskeletal inflexibility. That is, as people age and become less flexible - stiff - in their joints and spine, their arteries also follow in becoming stiffer. This progression has severe consequences because arterial stiffness is an independent predictor of cardiovascular morbidity.
Simple stretching improved arterial flexibility
In this study, a group of older women who did static stretching significantly reduced their arterial stiffness. Doing easy leg stretches appears to improve blood flow throughout the body by making the arteries more flexible and able to dilate.
Many recent studies have confirmed these results. The arteries of people who stretched responded and became more dilated and had increased blood flow. This outcome is a fantastic thing to know, that just by regular stretching we can improve our blood vessel health. Thomas Sydenham would be surprised, I'm sure.
It's not all good news, though. The improvements don't last when the stretching stops. For example, in one study, within six weeks of stopping the program, vascular functions returned to the original levels.
Although stretching is no panacea for people who have heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and other forms of vascular disease, it is preventative and drug-free and without side-effects.
In general, improving the capacity of our blood vessels to dilate helps them work more efficiently, allowing the muscles to receive oxygen more easily. This means, for example, that daily activities may be less tiring. It also can help reduce pain in your legs if you suffer from reduced peripheral circulation.
The static stretching exercises
In one recent study, volunteers held the thigh and calf stretches for 45 seconds, followed a 15-second rest. They repeated each set a total of five times.
That is something that you can start today with the typical stretches that you know. The experiments targeted the thigh and calf because they are large muscles which produce more prominent results. You can do all of the stretches you know, using the same 45-15 second protocol. Even 30-15 will work well.
Bear in mind that you should still warm-up.
A good warm-up dilates your blood vessels, ensuring that your muscles are well supplied with oxygen. It also raises your muscles' temperature for optimal flexibility and efficiency. By slowly increasing your heart rate, the warm-up also helps minimise stress on your heart.
If you aren't familiar with which stretches to do, here are two resources:
And, if you want to add an extra kick to improving your arterial health, I have these two tips:
If future studies confirm that stretching does improve cardiovascular health — particularly in older people — passive stretching could become the new everyday at-home treatment for improving blood vessel health.
Related: Brain Health Is Boosted By Eating Less, Often - Here's How To Start
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