One of the biggest benefits of regular exercise is its positive effects on heart health. Regular physical activity can improve many of the risk factors associated with heart disease, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high blood sugar, and chronic inflammation. Exercise is a natural stress reliever, and it also promotes weight loss.
While aerobic or “cardio” exercises such as running, swimming, and cycling are often considered to be the best forms of exercise for the heart, any form of physical activity can improve cardiovascular health. Moderate physical activity, such as a brisk 15-minute walk, can lead to significant health benefits, including weight loss, lower blood pressure, and lower cholesterol levels. Research has shown that engaging in moderate exercise for just 15 minutes a day can add three years to your life.
One form of physical activity that can deliver surprising cardiovascular benefits is a simple stretching routine.
Despite the tremendous benefits of exercise, fewer than 25 percent of Americans are meeting federal guidelines for both aerobic and muscle-strengthening exercise, and heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the U.S. for both men and women.
One possible explanation for the low level of physical activity among many Americans is that some people confuse exercising for general health with the level of activity required for competitive fitness. We may think that exercise has to be intense and sweaty to be beneficial, when, in reality, this is not the case.
“The truth is that if you’re exercising for health,” says Dr. Harvey Simon, associate professor of medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, “it takes very little effort to see enormous benefits.” When it comes to exercise, every little bit counts—even stretching.
A recent study conducted by researchers from the University of Milan in Italy found that participants who engaged in passive stretching for 12 weeks experienced significant improvements to their vascular system, including lower blood pressure, improved blood flow in their arteries, and less arterial stiffness.
While the positive changes seen with stretching were not as great as those generally experienced with aerobic exercise, the study still has important implications for improving heart health.
Poor circulation and hardening of the arteries increase the risk of cardiovascular events such as heart attack and stroke. A heart attack occurs when the flow of blood to the heart becomes blocked—most often due to a buildup of substances such as fat and cholesterol, which form plaque in the arteries. Similarly, a stroke happens when blood flow to the brain becomes blocked.
Improvements in arterial flexibility are especially notable, since once arterial stiffness sets in, it can be hard to reverse. Arteries need to be able to expand to respond to an increase in blood flow to deliver more blood to the heart and muscles when necessary. When arteries are hardened, it can cause chest pain or pain in the legs.
Study authors note that patients with vascular disease, in particular, may benefit from regular passive stretching in addition to aerobic exercise.
Passive stretching is stretching in which an external force is applied to a body part to provide the stretch without any muscle contraction. This force can be applied by a partner, gravity, or a prop such as a strap or a wall. With passive stretching, you typically remain in one position for a set period of time and relax your body.
Passive stretching is often used before and after workouts to prevent muscle soreness. Many forms of yoga incorporate passive stretching, especially restorative yoga. Active stretching, by comparison, requires more muscle involvement to achieve the desired stretch.
A closer look at the benefits of stretching is particularly relevant now when many people continue to be confined to their homes due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A regular stretching routine may be ideal for people who are in need of more physical activity but don’t have the means or the space for aerobic exercise.
Losing excess weight, treating high blood pressure, and engaging in aerobic exercise can also help improve arterial stiffness. Cutting back on sugar also helps, as does eating a heart-healthy diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables, leafy greens, fatty fish, and healthy fats such as olive oil.
In some cases of vascular disease, medications may be prescribed to help thin the blood, lower blood pressure, and increase blood supply to the extremities. If your doctor gives you a prescription for a medication such as a statin or anticoagulant, our ScriptSave WellRx savings card can help you find the lowest price.
Karen Eisenbraun is a Certified Holistic Nutrition Consultant. She holds an English degree from Knox College and has written extensively about topics related to holistic health, clinical nutrition, and weight management.