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A heart to heart on stretching: Treat your heart well…. and surely it will love you back!

March 5th 2014

A heart to heart on stretching: Treat your heart well…. and surely it will love you back!

What you already know

Ok, so we all know that aerobic exercise has multiple health benefits, but without a doubt the most dramatic effect is seen with our cardiovascular system.  When we exercise, we strengthen not only the muscles that support our skeleton but the actual heart muscle as well.  A stronger heart enables this powerful and nearly tireless organ to pump blood more efficiently, ultimately lowering our heart rate, decreasing blood pressure and improving circulation to the heart itself.

Go ahead, judge this book by it’s cover: flexibility on the outside equals healthy flexibility on the inside

In today’s fast paced world, it can sometimes be challenging to exercise regularly.  But that does not mean that we shouldn’t give our heart a little love.  Did you know that a single session of simple static stretching can result in short-term cardiovascular benefits?  Let me explain.  When we stretch, changes in muscle length and tension are detected by sensory receptors within the muscle (muscle spindles) as well as the musculotendinous junction (golgi organ).  These receptors relay this information through the spinal cord to the brain, allowing us to perceive the degree of stretch.  In an effort to facilitate the stretch, our parasympathetic nervous system is activated and our brain releases chemicals which help relax muscle and decrease heart rate (Farinatti et al.).  These chemicals are released systemically however and thus act on the walls of our blood vessels.  Relaxing the walls of blood vessels results in their dilation, effectively lowering blood pressure.

Make the investment: stretch to lengthen your muscles and possibly your lifespan

So how does this translate to our individual lives?  We should include a modest stretching program at the end of our workouts.  And if we miss a workout on a given day, no need to fret.  We can salvage some of the protective cardiovascular benefits via a 10-20 minute stretching session either first thing in the morning or before going to bed at night.  Stretching after a hot shower may be more comfortable and give us a head start as the heat helps relax muscles.  Stretching before going to bed may help in relaxation and our ability to fall asleep.

The details: perform to your heart’s content

Let us pay our hearts some attention this Valentine’s day with the following three stretching exercises.  Hold each stretch for 30 seconds at your maximum range of motion and repeat this 3 times for each stretch with 30 second breaks in between the same stretch and 1 minute rest breaks between the different types of stretches:

1. Standing forward bend: While standing, bend forward and reach for your toes keeping your knees straight.  This stretch is great for the back, gluteal, hamstring and calf muscles.


2. Seated side-to-side forward bend: While seated on the floor, straighten one leg and position off to the side while the other leg is in a half butterfly configuration.  Bend forward and reach for the toes of your straightened leg.  Repeat this stretch on the opposite side.  This stretch is similar to exercise #1 but gives you the chance to focus on each leg individually.


3. Butterfly stretch: While seated on the floor, bend both the hips and knees to bring together the soles of your feet.  Bend forward and feel the stretch along the inside of your thighs and groin as well as along the gluteal muscles.


Resource: Farinatti et al.  Acute Effects of Stretching Exercise on the Heart Rate Variability in Subjects with Low Flexibility Levels.  J Strength Cond Res (2011). Jun 25 (6): 1579-1585.

Marwa Ahmed, MD, MSC