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Originally published October 24 2009

Flexibility exercises like Pilates and yoga could prevent, treat stiff arteries

by S. L. Baker, features writer

(NaturalNews) From a sitting position, how far can you reach past your toes? Especially if you are middle-aged or older, the answer could indicate how flexible you are -- and also how flexible your arteries are. However, if you are stiff and can't reach too far, don't despair. New research suggests stretching exercises that increase flexibility could prevent or reverse stiffening of arteries.

In a study entitled "Poor trunk flexibility is associated with arterial stiffening", just published in the October edition of the American Journal of Physiology, researchers found that how well people age 40 and older performed on a sit-and-reach-past-their-toes test was an accurate way to assess the flexibility of their arteries. So, because arterial stiffness often precedes cardiovascular disease, this simple, non-drug, non-invasive test could become a quick measure of a person's risk for early death from heart attack or stroke.

"Our findings have potentially important clinical implications because trunk flexibility can be easily evaluated," scientist Kenta Yamamoto of the University of North Texas and the National Institute of Health and Nutrition in Japan said in a statement to the media. "This simple test might help to prevent age-related arterial stiffening."

Healthy blood vessels are elastic and that flexibility helps to moderate blood pressure. But as we age, arterial stiffness often increases, upping the risk for cardiovascular disease. In previous studies, scientists have documented that physical fitness can delay age-related arterial stiffness, although exactly how that happens in the body is not understood. Because people who exercise and are fit are usually more flexible than those who are out of shape, the researchers hypothesized that a flexible body could be a quick way to check for arterial flexibility.

To test this idea, the scientists investigated 526 healthy, non-smoking adults between the ages of 20 and 83 who had a body mass index (BMI) of less than 30. Then the research subjects were divided into three age groups: the young (20 to 39 years old), middle-aged (40 to 59 years old) and the elder (60 to 83 years old).

The research participants were asked to perform a sit-and-reach test by sitting on the floor with their backs against the wall and legs straight. The volunteers bent at the waist and slowly stretched, reaching their arms forward. Depending on how far they could reach, the research subjects' flexibility was rated by the scientists. The research team also recorded the participants' blood pressure and measured how long the pulse took to travel between the arm and the ankle and between the neck and the leg. Other measurements were collected from some of the research subjects, too, including their cardiorespiratory fitness, endurance and muscle strength.

Overall, the scientists discovered that trunk flexibility was the best predictor of artery stiffness among those who were middle-aged and older but not among the younger participants. In the middle-aged and older groups, the systolic blood pressure (the top number of a blood pressure measurement that indicates the pressure as the heart contracts) was higher in those with poor flexibility than in the people with good flexibility.

Why is arterial flexibility related to the flexibility of the body in middle-aged and older people? The scientists say that remains unclear but one possibility is that stretching exercises like yoga and Pilates may put into motion physiological reactions that slow down age-related stiffening of the arteries. Moreover, they cited additional recent research that found middle-aged and older adults who began a regular stretching exercise program significantly improved the flexibility of the carotid arteries in their necks.

"Together with our results, these findings suggest a possibility that improving flexibility induced by the stretching exercise may be capable of modifying age-related arterial stiffening in middle-aged and older adults," Dr. Yamamoto said in the press statement. "We believe that flexibility exercise, such as stretching, yoga and Pilates, should be integrated as a new recommendation into the known cardiovascular benefits of regular exercise."

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