It might be time to add stretching to your heart health arsenal. Here’s why.
by Sarah Ellis Health Writer
A good stretch can help alleviate everything from post-workout muscle tightness to after-work stress. And according to new research, stretching can also help keep your blood pressure in check. A December 2020 study in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health compared the effects of 30 minutes of daily stretching versus 30 minutes of daily walking, five days a week for eight weeks. The researchers found that stretching had a greater impact on lowering blood pressure than walking in people with normal-to-high levels or stage 1 hypertension.
“If people want to lower their blood pressure, they should probably incorporate some stretching into their exercise routine,” says Philip Chilibeck, Ph.D., study author and professor of kinesiology at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada. That is not to say that you should give up your regular forms of aerobic exercise like walking or biking. But when combined with these workouts, stretching can do more than just make you feel good—it can also help keep your heart healthy.
Stretching Your Blood Vessels
So, how exactly does stretching help lower your blood pressure? Chilibeck says it likely has to do with increasing your blood flow. “By stretching a limb, you’re not only stretching the muscles,” he explains. “You’re also stretching the blood vessels that flow through the muscles. And by stretching the blood vessels, it reduces their stiffness.”
This isn’t the first time stretching has been associated with benefits to the vascular system. Previous studies have shown that stretching helps with things like arterial stiffness and blood circulation. Donna Arnett, Ph.D., dean of the University of Kentucky College of Public Health in Lexington and former president of the American Heart Association, notes that this new study lines up with previous findings. “Other forms of exercise that involve stretching like yoga have been associated with lowering blood pressure,” she says, “so I’m not surprised that stretching in and of itself would also yield positive benefits on blood pressure.”
Don’t Stop Walking
That said, Arnett points out some notable limitations to this study. It was quite small (only 40 participants) and unclear whether the stretching was done with any warmup period. “There is some evidence that you can do harm when you stretch cold muscles,” she notes. Try a few jumping jacks, arm circles, and gentle lunges to get your blood flowing before diving into deeper stretches.
The idea that stretching is superior to walking also shouldn’t be taken too seriously, at least not without more data. “We don’t want people to give up on their aerobic programs because those programs definitely still have health benefits,” Chilibeck says. He hopes to replicate this study in a larger cohort to see whether these results hold up.
Still, there’s no harm done by safely incorporating stretching into your daily routine. Chilibeck recommends at least two or three different types of stretches per day, focusing on your major muscle groups in the lower body (where some of your largest arteries are located): quads, hamstrings, hips, and calf muscles. “Hold the stretch for at least 30 seconds,” he says, “then take about a 15-second break between stretches.” A few ideas to get you started:
Toe touches/forward fold
Figure 4 squats
Seated hamstring stretch
Heel to butt stretch
Try this after you head out on your afternoon walk, or sneak in a quick yoga session to knock out multiple stretches that way. You’ll get a heart health boost plus a few minutes to relax. Zen mode, activated.
- Study on Walking Vs. Stretching: Journal of Physical Activity and Health. (2020). “Stretching is Superior to Brisk Walking for Reducing Blood Pressure in People With High-Normal Blood Pressure or Stage I Hypertension.” pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33338988/
- Stretching & Arterial Stiffness: SpringerPlus. (2015). “Four weeks of regular static stretching reduces arterial stiffness in middle-aged men.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4583555/
- Stretching & Blood Circulation: Journal of Physiology. (2018). “Daily muscle stretching enhances blood flow, endothelial function, capillarity, vascular volume and connectivity in aged skeletal muscle.” pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29623692/
- Yoga for Heart Health: European Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing. (2016). “Effects of yoga in patients with paroxysmal atrial fibrillation – a randomized controlled study.” journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1474515116637734?journalCode=cnua