Heart Attack and Stroke Risk Decreased With Stretching

From Suite 101:

By Noreen Kassem

Can’t touch your toes with your fingertips? A lack of trunk muscle flexibility may be a sign of artery stiffness and heart disease. Here is why stretching is important.

Muscle flexibility is usually a sign of physical fitness; however, new studies indicate there may also be a correlation between core trunk muscle flexibility and artery wall stiffness. Stretching may be more important in preventing cardiovascular disease than previously thought and should be a part of exercise regimens, particularly for diabetics and other high risk individuals.

(See also Artery and Vein Stiffness Relieved by Stretching Test [2010] and Benefits of stretching along the artery [2008].)

What are the Dangers of Atherosclerosis?

The wall of the body’s arteries can lose flexibility due to aging, genetics and poor lifestyle choices. Arteries are large, thick walled, blood vessels that carry oxygenated blood to the every part of the body including the heart. Atherosclerosis or hardening of the artery walls is an important indication of cardiovascular disease and can to heart attacks and strokes.

This stiffness of the arteries may be caused by a build up of plaque made of fat, cholesterol and calcium in the blood. As plaque builds up and narrows the arteries, the flow of oxygenated blood is decreased and may cause cardiovascular disease. Genetics and other disorders such as diabetes and hypertension (high blood pressure) can make artery walls more susceptible to thickening and losing flexibility.

Different diseases and symptoms may arise depending on which arteries of the body are affected. Coronary heart disease (CHD) occurs if plaque builds up in the coronary arteries which supply blood to the heart itself. This can lead to angina or chest pain and a heart attack and is the leading cause of death in both men and women. If atherosclerosis occurs in the carotid arteries in the neck, a stroke can occur.

Muscle Flexibility Linked to Artery and Heart Health

According to a study by the National Institute of Health and Nutrition in Tokyo, Japan which was published in the American Journal of Physiology (October 2009; 297(4):1314-8), individuals with less muscle flexibility had higher risks of artery stiffness.

Tests conducted by the researchers including testing the ability of participants to touch their toes with their fingertips while in a seated position with legs outstretched and flat on the floor. The results showed that individuals with poor trunk or body flexibility also showed higher arterial stiffness and higher blood pressure readings.

The association between core trunk muscle flexibility and artery health may be due to several reasons. Regular stretching of the muscles may help to relax and exercise arteries, leading to lower blood pressure. It may also help to maintain collagen and elastin, the molecules which keep both the skin and artery walls flexible. Additionally individuals who exercise regularly may have increased flexibility and better artery health, while individuals with less physical activity have lower levels of muscle flexibility and poorer artery health.

At Home Test for Muscle Flexibility

Though a medical diagnosis by a physician is required to test artery and cardiovascular health, a stretch test may give an indication of overall physical health. Not being able to touch the toes indicates poor flexibility and therefore risk of cardiovascular disease. Stretching should be added to a weekly exercise regimen to reduce risks. Try basic stretches, yoga or Pilates for 10 to 15 minutes a day. Stretching before exercising also decreases the risk of muscle injuries and sprains.