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By now, we all know what stretching can do to improve our health. It can help us be more flexible, less stiff, and ease the tension accumulated in our bodies. Stretching can also reduce numerous aches and pains that we may experience in our day-to-day activities. We’re all familiar with those benefits but, did you know that stretching can also improve heart health?
A recent study published in the Journal of Physiology found that simple passive stretching can improve cardiovascular health. Researchers from the University of Milan in Italy enlisted 39 healthy men and women to participate in the study and then split them into two groups. One group was instructed to do leg stretches five times a week for 12 weeks, while the other group didn’t do any kind of stretching. The researchers evaluated the effects of stretching on blood flow, blood pressure, and arterial stiffness locally in the thigh, knee, and upper arm.
The group who stretched saw an improvement in their vascular system. Researchers found that the arteries in the thigh, knee and upper arm increased blood flow dilation and decreased stiffness. The effect was the greatest in the legs but was carried up to the body into the brachial artery of the upper arm. These results showed that stretching can have a positive impact all over the body.
Blood flow and vascular function are important markers of cardiovascular health and comorbidities such as stroke and diabetes. While stretching significantly helped blood vessel function, the doctors did emphasize that stretching is not a direct replacement for cardiovascular and aerobic exercises such as running, walking, or riding a bike. Still, stretching is a great form of exercise to keep you on track for excellent heart health.
Passive Stretches to Improve Heart Health
The study specifically focused on passive stretching. This type of stretch exercise requires an external force like gravity or another person or fitness equipment to apply force to help you complete the stretch. Passive stretching can be easily done anywhere, be it at home or the office. Here are a couple of excellent stretches that you can try for yourself.
Start by planting your feet flat on the ground at a hip-width apart and with your hands interlaced behind your back. Keep your arm straight. Next, lift your interlaced hands away from your body. Focus your gaze towards the ceiling, with your collarbones and chest spread wide.
Hinge at the hips, folding your torso over the legs. Stretch your arms overhead. Then, relax your head down, shifting your weight towards the balls of the feet. Hold for three breaths, release, and return to the initial position. This stretch can also be done seated.
Supine Hamstring Stretch
You’ll need a towel or a resistance band for this exercise. Lie on your back with your legs straight as a starting position. Bring one leg up to 90 degrees and loop the towel or band around your foot. Next, pull the leg back towards your body to feel a stretch in the hamstring and calf. Lower your leg, and then do the same with the other leg.
Prone Quad Stretch
Like the supine hamstring stretch, this exercise requires a towel or a band. To do this, lie down on your stomach. Loop a band or a towel around your foot and hold that band up near your head. A shorter, stronger band can intensify the stretch. Hold for a few seconds as you feel a good stretch, and then gently let go. Do the same with the other leg.
Seated Head-Toward-Knee Stretch
Start by sitting on your chair with your right leg stretched out in front of you. Bend your left leg with your left foot next to your right thigh. Gently fold your torso forward over your right leg. Hold, and then repeat on the other side.
Stretching is known to benefit the body in many different ways. A new study has shown us that passive stretching can help in increasing the elasticity of the vessels, allowing blood to travel throughout the body smoothly, aiding in the improvement of vascular health.
If you find that you can’t do other forms of exercise at the moment, passive stretching can be something that you may want to do, especially if you’re stuck at home. Emiliano Ce, one of the authors of the study, stated, “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.”