Like balloons, healthy blood vessels are flexible; widening and narrowing as needed during the day. But when arteries stiffen – due to ageing, carrying extra kilos, a build-up of plaque in artery walls, a sedentary lifestyle, or diabetes – blood pressure rises. And so does your risk of fatal strokes and heart attacks.
Testing for stiffness usually requires high-tech lab equipment. But now you can get a sense of whether your arteries are as supple as a silk stocking – or as inelastic as an old bicycle tyre – just by sitting on the floor. In a recent study of 526 women and men, researchers found that those who were the most flexible on a sit-and-reach test also had the most supple arteries, as measured by a pulse-wave pressure test.
What’s the connection? Artery walls are made up of the same components – smooth muscle cells and connective tissue – as the muscles in your hips and back, says lead researcher Dr Kenta Yamamoto, of the University of North Texas Health Science Centre at Fort Worth. So whatever stiffens one will have the same effect on the other.
Sure enough, there’s some evidence that activities that keep big muscles pliant, such as stretching, may “soothe” nerve activity that also affects artery flexibility. And another recent study found that adults who started a programme of regular stretching significantly increased the flexibility of the walls of their carotid artery – the vessel that supplies the brain with blood.
HOME CHECK – Sit on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you, toes pointed towards the ceiling. Bend forward from your hips and stretch your arms towards your feet. Try to touch your toes.
YOUR NEXT STEP – If you can’t reach your toes, you may be at increased risk for arterial stiffness. When’s the last time you had a pressure check? “You should get your blood pressure checked at least every other year,” Yamamoto says. Adding some stretching exercises to your routine might also limber up your muscles and your arteries.