Hundreds of years ago, English physician Thomas Sydenham taught that “a man is as old as his arteries.” We usually don’t think about the health of our arteries until a problem arises (like an emergency room admission, a heart attack, erectile dysfunction or sudden death). It not routine to measure the “age” of arteries directly although I do this with advanced equipment at the Kahn Center.
Fascinating data has emerged in the last few years suggesting that the flexibility of the spine and joints predicts the flexibility of arteries. Additional data indicates that yoga may help maintain our arteries in a youthful state. Now there is new data confirming this.
1. Spine flexibility relates to artery flexibility.
Japanese researchers evaluated the ability of 526 adults ranging in age from 20 to 83 years old to sit and reach their toes, a measure of spinal flexibility. Arterial stiffness (or aging) was measured by a technique using ultrasound. In patients over age 40, spinal and arterial flexibility were related. Spinal flexibility predicted arterial youthfulness independent of overall fitness and muscular strength.
The authors speculated that spinal and arterial flexibility may share similar components of muscles and collagen connective tissue. They also suggested that stretching reduces the sympathetic (or fight-or-flight) limb of our nervous system and less sympathetic activity relaxes arteries.
2. Stretching exercises improve artery flexibility.
Scientists had sedentary but healthy men and women participate in 13 weeks of strength training, cardio, or stretching exercises. Only the group doing stretching exercises showed improved artery flexibility measured by sophisticated ultrasound techniques. These authors also suggested that stretching reduces artery constriction by reducing the sympathetic nervous system activity.
3. Yoga improves artery flexibility.
Researchers measured artery flexibility in 42 persons starting a Bikram 90-minute yoga practice three times a week for 8 weeks. In the 24 younger patients, arterial flexibility was improved at the end of the study. Cholesterol and insulin levels also fell after the yoga training.
Another recent study examined 39 participants who were assigned to bilateral passive stretching, unilateral stretching or no stretching. Vascular function as measured before and after 12 weeks of stretching. After stretching for 12 weeks, vascular function increased in several different arterial systems in the legs and arms. No changes occurred in those not stretching. Vascular function improved and arterial stiffness was reduced in arteries stretched, whether just one side or both sides of the body. After stopping the exercises, the gains returned to baseline in 6 weeks. The authors concluded that after passive stretching, vascular function and arterial remodeling improved, and arterial stiffness decreased in all the arteries.
Stretching, healthy back yoga classes, and heated hatha yoga instruction are excellent ways to improve flexibility. Arteries appear to benefit if these practices are maintained. The ability of a yoga practice to lower blood pressure, blood cholesterol levels and insulin secretion is well established. Maintaining and improving flexibility on leads to many health benefits, including more youthful arteries. As predicted by Dr. Sydenham over 400 years ago, as arteries return to better health and a more youthful pattern, so does the entire body. I practice a daily ritual of flexibility and stretching called the Five Tibetans that is featured in a separate Kahn Center article.