This overlooked activity can be a game changer for blood pressure

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It’s estimated that close to half (45%) of all US adults suffer from a form of hypertension or high blood pressure. Perhaps even more troubling, only 24% of those individuals have their condition under control.

Initially, many with high blood pressure may not notice any symptoms and thus fail to take the situation seriously. Over time, though, hypertension can lead to awful symptoms like intense headaches, an irregular heartbeat, or trouble breathing. 

Above all that, high blood pressure puts an individual at a much higher risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke; two of the leading causes of death in the United States.

So, what can you do to lower your high blood pressure/prevent hypertension from ever occurring? For years, doctors have long advised hypertension patients to get moving. Walking has supposedly been the “gold standard” behavioral treatment for blood pressure issues. Now, however, a new study just released by the University of Saskatchewan finds stretching actually provides more blood pressure benefits than walking.

Canadian researchers say a regular stretching regimen can both lower one’s odds of ever developing hypertension and also help those already diagnosed with high blood pressure get a handle on their condition.

“Everyone thinks that stretching is just about stretching your muscles,” says kinesiology professor Dr. Phil Chilibeck, a co-author of the study, in a release. “But when you stretch your muscles, you’re also stretching all the blood vessels that feed into the muscle, including all the arteries. If you reduce the stiffness in your arteries, there’s less resistance to blood flow.”

Blood flow resistance often leads to increased blood pressure, so just like so many areas of physical health, much of controlling blood pressure comes down to cutting down on tension.

For this research, a group of 40 older men and women (average 61 years old) were gathered together and randomly assigned to either a walking or stretching experimental group for eight weeks. Importantly, all study subjects had already been diagnosed with stage 1 hypertension (high blood pressure) at the beginning of the study. The stretchers followed a whole-body stretching routine for 30 minutes each day five days a week. The other group walked briskly each day/week according to the same schedule/timeframe.

Both before and after the study period researchers measured each person’s blood pressure levels across three dimensions: as they were sitting down, laying down, and for an entire 24- hour period via a portable monitoring device. Across all three of those distinct areas, stretching resulted in greater blood pressure reductions than walking.

To be fair, those who walked every day did end up losing more weight than the stretchers.

All in all, study authors say both walking and stretching should be made part of any hypertension patient’s usual routine.

“I don’t want people to come away from our research thinking they shouldn’t be doing some form of aerobic activity. Things like walking, biking, or cross- country skiing all have a positive effect on body fat, cholesterol levels, and blood sugar,” Dr. Chilibeck explains.

Stretching sounds simple in theory, but many people who have neglected their flexibility over the years find stretching can seem impossible upon the first few attempts. Luckily, researchers say you don’t have to be able to touch your toes or do a leg split to enjoy some blood pressure benefits. Do what you can, and try to focus on the larger muscles in your legs (quadriceps, hamstrings) as much as possible. Study subjects were asked to stretch for a half-hour every day, but a shorter routine will likely produce similar benefits as well.

“When you’re relaxing in the evening, instead of just sitting on the couch, you can get down on the floor and stretch while you’re watching TV,” Dr. Chilibeck concludes.

The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health.