For heart health and longevity, blood pressure matters! A study published in the journal Hypertension found that women and men with normal blood pressure had a total life expectancy 4.9 and 5.1 years longer relative to those with hypertension. Plus, controlling blood pressure and keeping it in a healthy range reduces the risk of heart attacks, stroke, kidney failure, aneurysms, dementia, and visual loss due to retinal damage.
Fortunately, exercise is a healthy lifestyle habit that may reduce the risk of developing high blood pressure. Plus, aerobic exercise modestly lowers blood pressure in people who already have hypertension. If you have borderline hypertension, healthy lifestyle habits, like exercise, may delay the need for blood pressure medications.
What type of exercise is best for lowering blood pressure? The form of exercise most health care providers recommend to people concerned about high blood pressure is walking. Walking increases the heart rate and dilates arteries so there’s less resistance to blood flow and blood pressure drops. But could stretching provide as much or more benefit for blood pressure than walking?
Stretching and Blood Pressure
You might not think that stretching would have an impact on blood pressure but there’s evidence that it does. A study carried out at the University of Saskatchewan looked at the effects of walking and stretching on blood pressure and the results are surprising!
For the study, researchers recruited 40 middle-aged and older men and women with mild hypertension and assigned them to one of two groups. One group walked at a brisk pace for 30 minutes each day, 5 days per week. The second did a 30-minute stretching routine using the same schedule. Before starting the program, researchers measured the subjects’ blood pressure in all positions and monitored their pressure using a 24-hour monitor. At the end of the 8-week study, the researchers compared blood pressure readings between the two groups.
The results? Thirty minutes of stretching led to greater improvements in blood pressure than an equivalent amount of brisk walking. However, the walkers lost more body fat. The limits of the study are that its small size and the fact that all the participants had mild hypertension. It’s not clear whether the results would be the same for those with more severe hypertension or those with borderline blood pressure elevations.
Why would stretching be beneficial for lowering blood pressure? One theory relates to artery stiffness, how much resistance is in the wall of arteries, and how tightly they clampdown. One reason people develop high blood pressure is their arteries become stiffer and less compliant. A stiff artery offers more resistance to blood flow, and that causes a rise in blood pressure.
How might stretching reduce blood pressure? Stretching your muscles also stretches the arteries that carry blood to them, and that may be how stretching lowers blood pressure. It’s also possible that lengthening muscles alter nervous system activity between the brain and blood vessels. Stretching relaxes the body and mind and calms the fight-or-flight response that causes blood pressure to rise.
Add Stretching to Your Fitness Routine
What can you take away from this study? Don’t give up aerobic exercise. It’s beneficial to heart health beyond lowering blood pressure. If you like walking, keep doing it, but add some stretches to your routine after a walk. You would likely get more benefits by stretching the larger lower body muscles than the smaller upper body ones.
It’s a good idea to stretch after a workout, anyway. Although the participants in the study stretched for 30 minutes, there’s nothing magical about that number. You might get the same benefits stretching for a shorter period of time, although this needs more research.
As the researchers in the study point out, you may get similar benefits by doing yoga since it involves stretching. A meta-analysis of 49 studies found that people who do yoga had, on average, a systolic blood pressure 5 mmHg lower than those who didn’t and a diastolic blood pressure that averaged 3.9 mmHg lower. Those who were more consistent with their yoga practice had more substantial drops in blood pressure, around 11 mmHg systolic and 6 mmHg diastolic.
Why Not Do Both?
Stretching may lower blood pressure and improve flexibility, but it’s not the only type of exercise you should do. Adding some form of exercise that boosts your heart rate, whether it’s moderate-intensity cardio or high-intensity interval training, improves insulin sensitivity and that lowers the risk of metabolic syndrome, a cluster of metabolic issues linked with hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Plus, you need strength training to stay strong, fit, and functional.
So, there are benefits to keeping your workouts diverse and including several types of exercise in your routine. After a cardio or strength-training workout, spend at least 15 minutes stretching the muscles you just worked. Doing so will ease any stiffness and may be beneficial for your blood pressure too.
The Bottom Line
When you stretch, you lengthen your muscles, but that same stretching action may reduce stiffness in your arteries. In turn, that may lower your blood pressure. But always do a cooldown before stretching, since you want to bring your heart rate down slowly after a workout.
Always talk to your physician before starting an exercise program if you have poorly controlled hypertension though. They can give you guidance on the safest way to exercise based on your blood pressure readings and health history. Don’t forget to monitor your blood pressure too. Measuring it only at your regular doctor’s visits doesn’t offer enough information. It’s best to check readings in the morning and evening since morning blood pressure spikes are a risk factor for heart attack.
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