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Staying Flexible Helps Keep Your Heart Healthy

Flexible people over 40 have a lower risk of heart disease than those who are less limber, new study says.

What does your ability to touch your toes say about your cardiovascular health? Maybe quite a bit: A new study says that highly flexible people—especially those over age 40—may have a lower risk of heart disease than the less limber. Flexible people in the study had more elastic arteries than their less flexible counterparts; stiff arteries are a known risk factor for heart attacks and strokes.

Using a sit-and-reach test, researchers designated 526 adults as having either high or poor flexibility. In the middle-aged (age 40 to 59) and older (age 60 to 83) groups, the participants with poor flexibility had significantly stiffer arteries than did those with high flexibility; researchers did not find the same correlation in people under age 40. None of the participants was obese.

It is unclear how stretching might loosen arteries, says lead author Kenta Yamamoto, a research fellow at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth. He speculates that regular stretching may reduce activity in the sympathetic nervous system, which when overstimulated can make arteries stiffer and less flexible. The sympathetic nervous system is triggered into action by stress and controls the body’s fight-or-flight response.

Though the system also responds to exercise, don’t toss your running shoes, says Christopher Cannon, M.D., of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and a spokesman for the American College of Cardiology. “Cardio exercise, resistance training and stretching are all important” to cardiovascular health.

Yamamoto adds that he has a simple at-home test for flexibility. “In general, if you cannot touch your toes in the sit-and-reach test, then you are ‘poor’ flexibility.”

The study, which appeared in the August issue of the American Journal of Physiology, was funded by grants from the Japanese government.

John Briley writes about health, exercise, and travel.

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