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How Stretching Can Improve Your Cardiovascular Health

It’s well known that stretching can help improve flexibility and range of motion. But did you know there's a secret benefit to your heart? Dr. Jonathan Su, the Get-Fit Guy, explains new research showing how stretching can improve cardiovascular health. 

By
Dr. Jonathan Su, DPT, CSCS, TSAC-F, C-IAYT
3-minute read
Episode #553
The Quick And Dirty

As we get older, arteries begin to lose elasticity and become stiff. Arterial stiffness is closely associated with high blood pressure, stroke, and heart attack. But there’s good news:

  • Studies from over the last decade show that stretching significantly reduces arterial stiffness.
  • The results of one study showed reduced arterial stiffness in the stretched limbs and decreased blood pressure. 
  • Interestingly, arterial stiffness in unstretched parts of the body was also reduced.

It’s well known that stretching can help improve the flexibility of your muscles and the range of motion of your joints. Better flexibility and range of motion enable your body to work more effectively, which is important for enhancing physical performance and decreasing the risk of injuries

What you might not know is that stretching can also improve non-muscular structures such as the blood vessels that circulate blood through your body.

Understanding arterial stiffness

You may already know that your vascular system is made up of tube-like vessels that carry blood through your body. Arteries carry blood away from your heart to the rest of your body, while veins carry blood back to your heart. 

But as we get older, arteries begin to lose elasticity and become stiff.

Age-related arterial stiffening is, at least in part, due to the gradual loss of stretchy elastin fibers and the accumulation of stiffer collagen fibers in the arterial walls.

Increased arterial stiffness is a problem because it’s closely associated with high blood pressure and often precedes cardiovascular diseases such as stroke, heart attack, and heart failure. 

Stretching reduces arterial stiffness

But there’s good news. A review published earlier this year analyzed studies from over the last decade and concluded that stretching significantly reduces arterial stiffness.

Interestingly, arterial stiffness in unstretched parts of the body was also reduced.

Passive or static stretching—where you move your body to your limit or place of tension and stay in that position for up to a minute—is the main type of stretching performed in these studies. This is a common form of stretching used to improve muscle flexibility and joint range of motion. 

In one study, young, healthy participants performed leg stretches 5 times a week for 12 weeks. The results showed reduced arterial stiffness in the stretched limbs and decreased blood pressure. Interestingly, arterial stiffness in unstretched parts of the body was also reduced.

Although blood pressure returned to baseline within 6 weeks after the participants stopped stretching, arterial stiffness in the stretched and unstretched parts of the body remained reduced. 

While much is still unknown about the effects of stretching on vascular function, it’s clear that it improves vascular health. This preliminary evidence gives us another reason to make stretching part of our regular routine.

3 easy lower-body stretches for beginners

For those of you who want to get started on stretching but don’t know where to start, here’s a simple lower-body stretching routine similar to the one used in the study mentioned earlier. Try to perform the stretches three times on each leg. Be sure to check out my YouTube videos for instructions on how to perform these stretches. 

Standing calf stretch: Stand a few feet from a wall and put your right foot behind you, ensuring your toes are facing forward. Keep your heel on the ground and lean forward with your right knee straight until you feel a good stretch. Hold this stretch for 45 to 60 seconds and repeat on the opposite leg.

Standing quad stretch: Stand tall next to a wall with your feet hip-width apart and your left hand on the wall for balance. Bend your right leg and grasp your right foot with your right hand. Pull your heel toward your butt until you feel a good stretch. Hold this stretch for 45 to 60 seconds and repeat on the opposite leg.

Hamstring towel stretch: Lie on the floor with your left knee bent and your left foot flat on the floor. Wrap a belt or towel around the bottom of your right foot and hold onto the ends. Use the belt or towel to lift and straighten the right leg slowly upward until you feel a good stretch. Hold this stretch for 45 to 60 seconds and repeat on the opposite leg. 

5-Day Stretching Challenge

Are you ready to put this knowledge to use with a 5-day stretching challenge? Over the next five days, your challenge is to perform the lower body stretching routine daily. Give it a try and let me know how you feel by emailing me at getfitguy@quickanddirtytips.com or leaving me a voicemail at 510-353-3104.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Dr. Jonathan Su, DPT, CSCS, TSAC-F, C-IAYT

Dr. Jonathan Su is the host of the Get-Fit Guy podcast. He is a physical therapist and fitness expert whose mission is to make fitness accessible for everyone. Dr. Su is a former U.S. Army officer responsible for injury prevention, rehabilitation, and performance optimization for soldiers in the field. He is also the author of the bestseller Six-Minute Fitness at 60+.

Got a question for Dr. Su? You can email him at getfitguy@quickanddirtytips.com or leave him a message at the Get-Fit Guy voicemail line at (510) 353-3104.