Increase Your Flexibility for a Healthier Heart

Research suggests that staying limber as you age may be linked to more supple arteries.

Medically reviewed in February 2021

Updated on October 8, 2021

Remember when touching your toes was a requirement in grade-school phys ed class? Though it’s likely been some time since your jungle gym days—and just as long since you could bend all the way to the floor—It might be worth a try to see if you can still do it.

Research suggests there’s a link between your overall body flexibility and the flexibility of your arteries. Having supple arteries is important, particularly as you age, because they help move blood more effectively through your body. Plus, the more elastic those vessels are, the better they are able to maintain healthy blood pressure. Arterial stiffness, on the other hand, is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and mortality.

What the research shows
A 2009 study from Japan published in the American Journal of Physiology: Heart and Circulatory Physiology looked at 526 adults across several age bands. Members of each group were asked to perform a sit-and-reach test to determine their level of body flexibility. They were also given brachial-ankle pulse wave velocity (baPWV) tests to measure the stiffness of their arteries. (The test measures how long it takes for blood to transit through the body. Generally speaking, the longer it takes the blood to move through the arteries, the stiffer they are.)

Researchers found that those participants aged 40 and older who were the least able to stretch had stiffer arteries. These less-flexible folks also had higher systolic blood pressure—that’s the top number of the blood pressure reading, which measures the pressure of blood pushing against the arteries as the heart contracts.

So is body flexibility a predictor of arterial stiffening, and, in turn, heart health? More recent research bolsters the case that it may be.

In 2017, the same Japanese research team published a follow-up study in Frontiers in Physiology. They set out to measure the correlation between body flexibility and arterial stiffness, gauged using a carotid-femoral pulse wave velocity (cfPWV) test, over a five-year span. The researchers again saw an association between poor body flexibility and more stiffening of the arteries, this time focusing on the aorta, the main artery that leads from the heart to the body. The findings are compelling, but more research is needed to confirm the link between age-related changes in arterial stiffness and body stiffness over time.

Get bendy for your heart
While the underlying mechanisms aren’t yet fully clear, researchers suspect that being generally flexible contributes to the flexibility of the blood vessels inside. And while it’s premature to say that stretching regularly will help you avoid cardiovascular disease, it’s a good idea to add flexibility exercise to your overall approach to heart wellness, which also includes:

  • Eating a high-fiber diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and low in saturated fats
  • Getting 7 to 9 hours of quality sleep each night
  • Reducing stress levels as much as possible
  • Getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise each week

Exercising regularly can help delay some of the age-related changes that take place in blood vessels, including arterial stiffening—and now we know that flexibility has a role to play, too. So when you exercise, work in some flexibility moves, such as yoga, Pilates, or regular stretching.

Meanwhile, if you want to measure your flexibility the way the researchers did, the sit-and-reach test is simple: Sit on the floor with your back supported by a wall, legs straight out in front of you, toes pointing up. Slowly reach forward from the hips, and without locking your knees, see how far toward your toes you can extend your arms.

Check in with this stretch every so often to see how limber you can stay over the years.

Sources:

Yamamoto K, Kawano H, Gando Y, et al. Poor trunk flexibility is associated with arterial stiffening. Am J Physiol Heart Circ Physiol. 2009;297(4):H1314-8.
Gando Y, Murakami H, Yamamoto K, et al. Greater Progression of Age-Related Aortic Stiffening in Adults with Poor Trunk Flexibility: A 5-Year Longitudinal Study. Front Physiol. 2017;8:454.

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