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Stiff back and legs = stiff arteries, study says

October 6, 2009 |  7:18 am

Want to know whether your arteries have begun to stiffen, putting you at greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease? Bend over.

Sit down against a wall, with your legs on the floor in front of you, that is, and try to touch your toes. In fact, reach beyond them if your yoga, Pilates or daily stretching routine make it possible.

For people over 40 -- even if they're a little overweight -- a new study shows that trunk flexibility may be a good indicator of arterial flexibility. Conversely, the study found, stiffness at the midsection seems to reflect arteries that have begun to lose their elasticity as well.

Elastic blood vessels help moderate blood pressure. Not surprisingly, then, researchers found that those who could not reach to or beyond their toes in the sit-and-stretch test were more likely than their flexible peers to have higher systolic blood pressure -- the peak pressure reading taken as the heart contracts). While midsection stiffness predicted arterial stiffness, the Japanese researchers found that subjects' muscle strength and cardio-respiratory fitness, as measured by their performance on an stationary bicycle, did not yield any clues to the shape their blood vessels were in.

The study, published today in the American Journal of Physiology, helps unpack the ingredients that make for a heart-healthy person. While regular exercisers have generally been found to have lower rates of cardiovascular disease, researchers have been in the dark about what part of regular exercise contributes most to that affect.

The Japanese study suggests that the key may be the flexibility that's a frequent side benefit of regular exercise. That's suggested by another recent study, which found that middle-age and older adults who undertook a stretching-exercise regimen significantly improved the flexibility of their carotid artery, which carries oxygen-rich blood to the brain (and which, when blocked, is the cause of an ischemic stroke).

So strike that yoga pose, strengthen your core and stretch your body, say the researchers: it may hold age-related arterial stiffening -- and cardiovascular disease -- at bay. "We believe that flexibility exercise ... should be integrated as a new recommendation into the known cardiovascular benefits of regular exercise," Kenta Yamamoto, a study author from Japan's National Institute of Health and Nutrition and the University of North Texas, said in a press release.

Need some help with those stretching exercises? Here are some tips from the American Heart Assn.

--Melissa Healy