While most people think of the act of stretching as something athletes do to loosen their muscles before a game or a workout, research into stretching now shows it can do a lot more than that.
A few minutes of stretching each day has the potential to dramatically improve your health in ways that range from improving blood flow to stimulating the immune system to fight off diseases like cancer.
I find it essential to stretch every day. Otherwise, my chronic stiffness and achiness get totally out of hand. The studies below are proof it does so much more. . .
A study at the University of Milan in Italy shows that a twelve-week program of easy-to-perform stretching can accelerate blood flow by increasing the dilation of arteries and reducing the stiffness in artery walls. And the researchers say these improvements can support better heart health.
Stretching’s Circulation Benefits Last
This type of stretching involves staying in one particular position for a set period of time – for something like 30 to 60 seconds – while you exert a low level of fixed pressure on a part of your body.
It’s interesting that even though the people in the Italian study only performed stretches of their legs, the blood flow in the arteries in both their legs and their arms improved.1
But the key is sticking with it.
Six weeks after they stopped stretching, researchers found that although the arteries in their legs continued to remain more relaxed and kept allowing more blood to pass through them, the arteries in their arms had returned to their original state.
Along with improving the function of arteries, stretching may also increase the number of capillaries supplying blood to muscle tissue and thereby boost muscle health.2
Limited Mobility? Stretching Offers Big Benefits
In these lab tests involving researchers from Kansas State University, Florida State University and scientists in Japan, the findings also demonstrate that stretching can be a valuable exercise for older people who have a limited ability to move around and engage in physical activity.
“Elderly people with limited mobility are often less likely to take part (in exercise),” says researcher Judy Muller-Delp. “Our research suggests that static muscle stretching performed regularly can have a real impact by increasing blood flow to muscles in the lower leg.”
I’d add, too, that while this research didn’t look into it, stretching likely improves blood flow to the brain in people who live a sedentary lifestyle. That in and of itself can help you improve your memory and cognition.
Fights Cancer, Too
In addition to those studies, intriguing research at Harvard and Brigham and Women’s Hospital show that stretching may even help the body’s immune system fight off cancer.
This investigation – which was conducted on animals – indicated that stretching may reduce the size of tumors by an average of 52 percent compared to cancer in animals that don’t have their limbs stretched.3
The researchers believe that stretching spurs the body’s T-cells to fight more aggressively against cancer cells. They also discovered that stretching reduced levels of what’s called PD-1, an immune factor that would otherwise hamper the body’s response to cancer.
On top of those findings, the investigation showed that stretching affected the way the body controlled inflammation (this makes sense since it’s an immune system function). The Harvard researchers are not yet sure precisely what these discoveries signify, but they say it sheds light on the fact that stretching exerts important influences on immune cells in ways that seem to help them respond to tumors.
“There is still so much we don’t understand in terms of how stretching reduces tumor growth,” says researcher Jean J. Zhao, PhD, who teaches biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology at Harvard. “Understanding these mechanisms could help us develop more effective therapies against breast cancer and potentially other cancer types.”
If you decide to start a stretching program, experts recommend doing some light physical activity for five to ten minutes at each session before stretching. That can warm up your muscles and make it easier and safer to stretch. Then, each stretch is usually held for 30 seconds to a minute. And you should repeat each stretch on both sides of your body.
Don’t be overly aggressive pushing yourself into a stretch; keep your movements slow and gradual. Don’t do a stretch if it causes pain. And remember to breathe while you stretch.
You can find a beginner’s guide to simple stretches at the Mayo Clinic website here.