SASKATOON, Saskatchewan — Physicians often prescribe walking as an effective form of exercise for patients battling high blood pressure. For those times when walking is difficult or impractical however, are there other options to lower blood pressure? The answer is unequivocally yes! According to researchers from the University of Saskatchewan, stretching is a surprisingly effective alternative that does an even better job of lowering blood pressure than walking.
“Everyone thinks that stretching is just about stretching your muscles,” says kinesiology professor and study co-author Dr. Phil Chilibeck in a university release. “But when you stretch your muscles, you’re also stretching all the blood vessels that feed into the muscle, including all the arteries.”
Study authors point out that the reduced stiffness in arteries means less resistance in blood flow. This adds up to a healthier blood pressure.
High blood pressure (hypertension) is one of the primary risk factors for developing cardiovascular disease. Despite its seriousness, it’s also one of the most preventable risk factors for overall mortality.
Although prior studies have discovered that stretching reduces blood pressure, none have ever compared the blood pressure tests of walkers and stretchers in the same study.
Nothing beats a good stretch?
In the new report, researchers randomly placed 40 men and women with an average age of 61 in one of two groups for an eight-week study. All participants had elevated blood pressure, or stage 1 hypertension, at the beginning of the experiment.
One group took part in a whole-body stretching routine for 30 minutes a day, five days a week. The other group walked briskly for the same amount of time and number of days each week.
Before and after the eight-week experiment, researchers measured participants’ blood pressure while the group was sitting and lying down. In addition, a portable monitor captured their blood pressure measurements over a 24-hour period. Study authors consider this type of tracking to be the gold standard for true blood pressure measurement.
The results reveal that the stretchers come out as the winners. Stretching dropped blood pressure more than walking for all three types of measurements taken. The team did find that walkers lost more body fat around the waist over the eight weeks — which brings up another important point.
Chilibeck says those who are walking as a means to reduce blood pressure should keep it up, but include stretching as part of their exercise regimen.
“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,” the researcher explains.
Stretching is weather-proof way to stay healthy
Stretching certainly has its appeals for many people for all sorts of reasons.
“The beauty of stretching is that it’s so easy to incorporate into a person’s daily routine. You’re not at the mercy of the weather and it’s easy on your joints–a big plus for people with osteoarthritis,” Chilibeck adds. “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.”
Study authors note the experiment’s target of 30 minutes of stretching may not even be needed to meet the goal of lowering blood pressure. They suspect that similar results would be accomplished with shorter routines that work the larger muscle groups in the legs, especially the quadriceps and hamstrings. They point to yoga as another means to reduce blood pressure to a similar extent.
The study team wants to tackle a larger study with more participants that expands the scope beyond simply taking blood pressure measurements. In the next study, researchers want to gain a better understanding of the mechanisms behind stretching that result in lower blood pressure. Among the questions they hope to answer: What happens to arterial stiffness during stretching? Also, how is the body’s nervous system altered by stretching motions?
For now, keep walking and keep stretching for your health.
Findings are published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health.