Just a few months of this simple activity can add years to your life

It’s often said that mental flexibility is an essential trait in terms of navigating this wild and unpredictable world. Now, a new study from The Physiological Society finds that literal, physical flexibility is also a characteristic worth pursuing from a cardiovascular health perspective.

The research, performed by a team of scientists at the University of Milan, found that just 12 weeks of simple passive stretching exercises resulted in improved blood flow among a group of study participants. Stretching helps with the flow of blood by decreasing stiffness and making it easier for arteries to dilate. 

While more research is needed to confirm and expound upon these findings, the observed blood vessel changes among participants suggest that stretching can lower one’s risk of developing heart disease or diabetes.

“Passive stretching” is defined as whenever one uses an additional object or appendage to aid in their stretching activities. So, if you use a fitness band, or even just your hand, to aid in a specific stretch, that’s passive stretching. “Active stretching,” on the other hand, is a stretch solely initiated by “activating” the targeted muscle.

In all, 39 healthy adults took part in this study. The participants were split into two groups; one group didn’t partake in any stretching at all, but the experimental group stretched their legs five times each week for a total of 12 weeks. The research team looked specifically to see what effect that stretching regiment had on participants’ blood flow within their legs and upper arms.

Universally, adults who stuck to the prescribed stretching routine displayed decreased stiffness and increased blood flow and dilation.

Virtually all forms of heart disease, as well as stroke and diabetes, are linked to blood flow problems caused by a decline or full-on malfunctioning of the vascular system. With these facts in mind, these findings certainly indicate that stretching can help prevent or treat such conditions.

The study’s authors would like their results to be validated by an additional study focusing on patients already diagnosed with vascular disease. If the same results are replicated, stretching may just become a new non-drug treatment option for reducing one’s risk of heart disease and improving vascular health. Stretching could be an especially attractive option for people unable to engage in more strenuous activities that have long been linked to strong heart health, such as aerobics.

Additionally, stretching routines also represent a great way for people who were recently hospitalized or recieved surgery to maintain or build back up their cardiovascular health.

“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,” comments study author Emiliano Ce in a press release.

Prevailing fitness culture tells us that one hasn’t achieved a meaningful workout unless they have “pushed their limits” by running for miles upon miles or setting a new bench press maximum rep. This research is a refreshing reminder that staying healthy and fit isn’t always about taking activities to the extreme. A simple set of leg stretches can be just as, if not more, beneficial.

The full study can be found here, published in The Journal of Physiology.