Increase Your Flexibility for a Healthier Heart

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

Middle-aged Black man does yoga stretch outdoors with other exercisers

Updated on March 31, 2023.

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, 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 small 2020 study published in The Journal of Physiology looked at stretching and its effects on vascular function and artery stiffness. Researchers examined 39 participants before and after a 12-week intervention of stretching training. The participants were split into three groups: One group stretched on both sides of the body, one group only stretched the right side, and the last group did not stretch. After the 12 weeks, researchers found that vascular function had improved and artery stiffness was reduced in the groups that stretched. Even arteries that were uninvolved in the stretching routines decreased in stiffness. 

A reduction in arterial stiffness may not be the only heart-healthy benefit of stretching, either. A meta-analysis published in 2020 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health discovered that stretching exercises were linked to significant reduction in arterial stiffness, resting heart rate, and diastolic blood pressure, as well as improvements in vascular function.

So, stretching can help, but is body flexibility a predictor of arterial stiffening, and, in turn, heart health? Some research bolsters the case that it may be.

In 2017, for example, a Japanese research team published a study in Frontiers in Physiology after measuring the link between body flexibility and arterial stiffness over a five-year span. They found poor flexibility was associated with stiffness of the aorta, the main artery that leads out of the heart. While the findings were compelling, more research is needed to confirm the connection.

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 should also include:

  • Eating a high-fiber diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and low in saturated fats
  • Getting seven to nine 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 some of 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.

Article sources open article sources

MedlinePlus. Aging changes in the heart and blood vessels: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. Page last reviewed July 21, 2022. 
Boutouyrie P, Chowienczyk P, Humphrey JD, et al. Arterial Stiffness and Cardiovascular Risk in Hypertension. Circulation Research. 2021;128(7):864-886. 
Bisconti AV, Cè E, Longo S, et al. Evidence for improved systemic and local vascular function after long‐term passive static stretching training of the musculoskeletal system. The Journal of Physiology. 2020;598(17):3645-3666. 
Kato M, Nihei Green F, Hotta K, et al. The Efficacy of Stretching Exercises on Arterial Stiffness in Middle-Aged and Older Adults: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized and Non-Randomized Controlled Trials. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2020;17(16):5643. 
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. Frontiers in Physiology. 2017;8. 
American Heart Association. The American Heart Association’s Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations. Page last reviewed January 11, 2021. 
Mayo Clinic. 8 steps to a heart-healthy diet. April 28, 2022. 
American Heart Association. Life’s Essential 8 - How to Get Healthy Sleep Fact Sheet. Accessed on February 8, 2023. 
American Heart Association. Stress and Heart Health. Page last reviewed June 21, 2021. 
American Heart Association. American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults and Kids. Page last reviewed April 18, 2018.

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