Flexibility doesn't get the attention it deserves. Most people in the gym focus only on aerobic exercise and/or resistance training. Research suggests this approach may be a mistake. Several studies have noted stretching is good for your arteries. This means there is a connection between flexibility and heart disease risk factors. More specifically, a lack of flexibility appears to raise the risk of heart disease by making blood vessels stiffer. In this video review, I summarize the evidence and help you make sense of it.
Why Are Stiff Blood Vessels Bad?
Blood vessels that are stiffer, are less able to vasodilate (open up) in response to nitric oxide or to physical activity, your mood or body position. This could lead to less blood getting to where it needs to (like the heart). Also, stiffer blood vessels may be more easily damaged by increased blood pressure. This could increase the risk of strokes.
Humans have about 100,000 miles of blood vessels. They play an important role in our health.
Video: Flexibility and Blood Vessel Health
How Does Stretching Improve Blood Vessel Health?
I have not seen a good explanation for why blood vessel health is improved by stretching. When I first heard about this, I thought it was related to some people having better aerobic ability. This new research casts doubt on that. Another proposed mechanism is that stretching may lower blood pressure. However, I noticed several studies do not show reduced blood pressure in the participants.
Common Flexibility Questions
How Often Should You Do Stretching Exercise?
Some of the studies have shown benefits in blood vessel function in as few as 1 session per week. It makes sense that more frequent stretching sessions would probably see greater benefits on artery function. For those who have not performed stretching before, start with only 1 or 2 times per week.
How Long Should You Hold The Stretch
Some investigations have had people hold the stretch for 20 seconds. In other studies, the time is longer. Don't get overwhelmed by this. Instead, just stretch to you feel mild discomfort and hold that position for a few seconds. As you get better, you can hold the stretch for longer times. If you are in the 10 seconds to 30-seconds window, you are doing ok.
Do You Have To Do Yoga To Get Benefits?
Some investigations on blood vessel health have used yoga (Bikram Yoga), also known as hot yoga. While yoga is popular I don't think you need to do hot yoga to improve artery function. It can be any type of yoga class. Stretching at home will work too.
Will Stretching Reduce Muscle Soreness?
The idea that stretching will help sore muscles is a common myth. Muscle soreness – also called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) – is the muscle pain that often pops up 1-2 days after you do an activity you are not used to doing. If you are not used to stretching, its possible it may cause muscle soreness.
Can Flexibility Exercises Reduce Joint Pain?
Many times, yes. Studies show improving flexibility can help arthritis pain as well as reduce knee pain, shoulder pain, and low back pain. While it really depends on what is causing the pain sensations, I've seen it myself; when I stretch a bit more, temporary pains subside.
Can Dynamic Stretching Help?
Studies looking at flexibility and artery health have used static stretching. Dynamic stretching (ballistic or bouncy stretching) has its place sometimes, but when it comes to helping blood vessel integrity, studies cannot be located.
Does Stretching Lengthen Muscles
This is a common myth. Muscles are attached to our bones at two different points. Stretching does not change the attachment points of muscles to the bones.
Should You Stretch Before Warming Up?
Most of the studies on artery function did not say if people warmed up prior to stretching. That said, warming up is often recommended before stretching, especially if you re stretching cold muscles. A warm-up is 5-10 minutes of low-level aerobic exercise. you can walk or ride a bike or use the elliptical machine. Anything that helps you break a sweat will count as a warm-up.
So, Should You Be Stretching?
While we still don't know if stretching prevents heart attacks, the writing on the wall tells us improving the flexaiblity of our muscles seems to improve the flexibility of our blood vessels. Based on the research, adding a little stretching to your exercise routine may be something to consider.
Any Comments or Questions?
- Poor trunk flexibility is associated with arterial stiffening
- The effect of Bikram yoga on arterial stiffness in young and older adults
- Sex differences in flexibility-arterial stiffness relationship and its application for diagnosis of arterial stiffening: a cross-sectional observational study
- Four weeks of regular static stretching reduces arterial stiffness in middle-aged men
- Association of body flexibility and carotid atherosclerosis in Japanese middle-aged men: a cross-sectional study