How to prevent heart disease without breaking a sweat

By Connie Capone
Published July 24, 2020

Key Takeaways

Better cardiovascular health is usually boiled down to a simple philosophy: eat right and move often. But new research endorses an even easier, less strenuous method of preventing cardiovascular disease: getting in a good stretch.

For those looking to make a difference without breaking a sweat or trying out another crash diet, here’s how you can stretch your way to better heart health.

Why stretching is important

Stretching is all about placing parts of the body in positions that help lengthen or elongate the muscles and soft tissues. There are several variations, including dynamic (involving motion) and static (not involving motion). The most basic form is passive stretching, in which a position is held for a period of time with the assistance of another part of the body, another person, or a stretching apparatus.

Commonly regarded as an important precursor to aerobic exercise or as a cool down after a workout, stretching also has plenty of merits as an activity of its own. Incorporating stretching into your daily routine keeps your muscles flexible, strong, and healthy, which allows for a greater range of motion in the joints. Muscles that aren’t stretched regularly are more prone to strains, tears, and other injuries.

Stretching also relieves stress and promotes increased blood and nutrient flow throughout the body—this is where the benefits to your heart come into play.

How stretching helps the heart

Passive stretching can help decrease the risk of vascular issues, according to a new study published in The Journal of Physiology.

For this study, the researchers randomly assigned 39 men and women to either a stretching regimen or doing no stretching (control group). The stretching regimen included five sets of four leg stretches done for 45 seconds each. After the 12-week study period, the group that stretched saw a decrease in blood pressure, a reduction in arterial stiffness, and an increase in vascular function—in other words, a reduction in three risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

“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 Emiliano Cè, PhD, one of the study’s authors and an associate professor, Department of Biomedical Sciences for Health, University of Milan, Italy.

These findings support prior research published in the International Heart Journal, which found that just one stretching session improved vascular endothelial function and blood circulation in patients who had a recent heart attack. This suggests that stretching could be a drug-free way to preserve vascular health in patients, especially those with low mobility, even when they’re hospitalized or after surgeries.

Another study, published in the American Journal of Physiology-Heart and Circulatory Physiology, found a link between poor flexibility and arterial stiffness. Researchers measured the flexibility of over 500 adults and found that participants who could not reach to or beyond their toes in a sit-and-reach test were more likely than flexible participants to have higher systolic blood pressure.

Stretching can also be a valuable tool for relaxation, with an ability to relieve the physical symptoms of stress, which manifest as tense muscles, rapid breathing, and neck and back pain. In a review published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, study participants who engaged in stretching reported decreases in diastolic blood pressure, lower self-reported levels of muscle tension, and even lower levels of sadness.

Ways to get started

Whether you’ve been a gym regular for years or you’re dealing with low mobility, there are plenty of basic stretching movements that you can incorporate to increase your flexibility, blood flow, and energy, while lowering your risk of cardiovascular disease.

The good news is that you don’t have to stretch every single one of your muscles to reap the benefits. “The areas critical for mobility are in your lower extremities: your calves, your hamstrings, your hip flexors in the pelvis, and quadriceps in the front of the thigh,” said David Nolan, PT, DPT, clinical specialist at Mass General Sports Physical Therapy, in the Harvard Health Letter.

Here are a few tips to consider before you get your stretch on:

  • Be mindful: Make sure that you’re performing your stretches correctly to avoid injury. If you’re already injured, be cautious about the muscle groups you’re stretching. (Check out this handy lower extremity guide to ensure you’re using proper technique.)

  • Don’t bounce: Hold a stretch for 30 seconds and don’t bounce. Bouncing while stretching can slightly tear muscles which will only further tighten the muscle and decrease flexibility. Stretching should only produce mild tension, so do not force yourself into a position that causes pain.

  • Stretch warm muscles: It’s best to stretch after a short session of physical activity, when your muscles are warm. Stretching cold muscles can result in injury. If you’re about to do a serious workout, take a quick walk or a warm-up jog before you begin your stretching.

  • Set a time: Your stretching session doesn’t need to last hours. Pick a brief 10-minute window, 2 to 3 days per week.

  • Breathe: Avoid holding your breath. Maintain a regular breathing rhythm as you stretch.

Make your morning stretch a daily ritual or tack on a stretching session after a workout. However you choose to incorporate stretching, your body (and your heart) will thank you.

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