Simply stretching could protect against heart attack and stroke

Simply stretching could protect against heart attack and stroke by loosening your arteries and improving blood flow, scientists say

  • Just 12 weeks of passive stretching can dilate arteries and improve blood flow 
  • Passive stretching involves an external force such as another person to stretch
  • This suits people who might find stretching exercises or exercise routines hard

New research recommends a good stretch to help protect against us heart diseases, diabetes and stroke by loosening our arteries.

Just three months of passive stretching helps improve blood flow by making it easier for arteries to dilate and decreasing their stiffness, Italian scientists report.

Passive stretching involves an external force, such as another person or an accessory, to stretch, whereas active stretching is performed on one’s own. 

The study shows the benefits of passive stretching, which may better suit people who find stretching and exercise routines difficult, due to the extra assistance. 

Researchers observed changes in blood vessels that could have implications for diseases including the top global killer, heart disease, and could help form cheap and drug-free treatment programmes.

Their study could also help reduce the long-term effects of limited mobility during the coronavirus lockdowns.

12 weeks of easy-to-administer stretching helps improve blood flow by making it easier for your arteries to dilate and decreasing their stiffness

‘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,’ said study author Emiliano Ce at the University of Milan.

Vascular function, the ability of an artery to dilate and constrict, is an important marker of cardiovascular health, and improving and maintaining vascular function is crucial for the prevention of cardiovascular disease.

Recent studies have reported that acute passive stretching, a well-established practice in rehabilitation and sport, may have a positive effect on vascular function, arterial stiffness and arterial structure.

Photographs showing the passive stretching exercises undertaken by study participants. Passive stretching differs from active stretching in that the former involves an external force (another person or gravity) stretching you, whereas active stretching is performed on your own


Footballers help each other with cramp by way of a ‘passive stretch’ – one that involves assistance from an outside force

Passive stretching is a technique in which you are relaxed and make no contribution to the range of motion.

Instead, an outside agent creates force, either manually or mechanically.

Examples include using a towel, band, gravity or another person to help you stretch.

The splits is an example of a passive stretch – in this case the floor is the apparatus that’s used to maintain the extended position.

Footballers engage with passive stretching when they get their teammate to help them with cramp.

Active stretching is performed on our own with no external force.

An example would be bringing the leg up high and then holding it there without assistance anything (other than our leg muscles). 

Stretching loosens the muscles and prepares the body for the possibility of more intense activity, but it also has benefits whether or not this further activity is undertaken.

Researchers looked at passive stretching in particular, which requires the use of an ‘outside agent’ to create force for the stretch to happen.

Passive stretching – which can include help from a friend, an exercise accessory, gravity or even another part of the body – is useful in relieving spasms in muscles that are healing after an injury.

To learn more about passive stretching, researchers at the University of Milan assigned 39 healthy participants of both sexes to two groups.

The control group didn’t undergo any stretching, while the experimental group performed passive leg stretches five times a week for 12 weeks.

Methods to record vascular function and arterial stiffness – which were measured before and after 12 weeks – included through pulse wave analysis and flow-mediated dilation, which uses ultrasound to measure the widening of an artery when blood flow increases.

Arteries in both the lower leg and upper arm had increased blood flow and dilation when stimulated, along with decreased stiffness, they found.

Improvement in blood pressure, arterial stiffness and vascular function was noted in the arteries of the body parts directly and not directly involved in passive stretching of the lower limbs.

Blood pressure was decreased, arterial stiffness was reduced and vascular function was increased after 12 weeks of training.

Decreased stiffness and increased blood flow may have implications for diseases such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes as they are characterised by changes in blood flow control due to an impaired vascular system.

Stretching may also be used during hospitalisation or after surgical interventions, in order to preserve the vascular health when patients have low mobility

The scientists say that if their experiments are replicated in patients with vascular disease, it could indicate whether or not this training method could serve as a new drug-free treatment for improving vascular health and reducing disease risk.

Passive stretching routines may also be used during hospitalisation or after surgical interventions to preserve the vascular health when patients have low mobility and can be also performed at home by carers or family members.

‘Passive stretching has been shown to be an effective means to improve vascular function, with practical implications for its use as a novel non-pharmacological treatment for improving vascular health, reducing the overall cardiovascular risk, especially in individuals with limited mobility,’ the team write in The Journal of Physiology. 

Passive stretching-induced improvements related to central mechanisms seemed to have a short duration, however, and they returned to pre-training rates within six weeks after the training routines ended.  

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