For those with moderately high blood pressure, stretching may be one of the best and easiest ways to get their hypertension under control.
A new study directly compared how walking, the "prescription of choice" for physicians and their patients with high blood pressure, versus stretching affect the condition over time.
The researchers from the University of Saskatchewan in Canada found that participants on a walking program lost more fat from their waists during the eight-week study, but those who were assigned to stretch saw the biggest reductions in blood pressure.
The team says it might be ideal to include some stretching exercises along with aerobic training such as walking or biking to lower high blood pressure, thus reducing risks for heart attacks, stroke, kidney disease and even vision loss.
The findings were published in December in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health.
"Everyone thinks that stretching is just about stretching your muscles," study co-author and kinesiology professor at USask Dr. Phil Chilibeck said in a news release.
But it's more than that, Chilibeck added. Stretching your muscles also stretches the blood vessels and arteries that feed into your muscles. Reducing the stiffness in your arteries through some gentle pulling and pushing decreases resistance in blood flow, he said.
The more resistance to blood flow, the higher your blood pressure, Chilibeck added.
Plus, stretching is easy on the joints, "a big plus for people with osteoarthritis," and doesn't require major time commitments or dependence on good weather. "When you're relaxing in the evening, instead of just sitting on the couch, you can get down on the floor and stretch while you're watching TV," Chilibeck said.
"I don't want people to come away from our research thinking they shouldn't be doing some form of aerobic activity," Chilibeck added. "Things like walking, biking, or cross-country skiing all have a positive effect on body fat, cholesterol levels and blood sugar."
The research team randomly assigned 40 men and women with an average age of 61 to two groups: one performed "whole-body" stretching exercises for 30 minutes a day, five days a week for eight weeks, and the other group walked "briskly" for the same amount of time.
All participants had stage 1 hypertension, according to the study.
Blood pressure was measured while participants were sitting and lying down with a portable monitor that was strapped to their arms. The device collected measurements every 20 minutes during "awake time and every 45 minutes during sleeping time."
The researchers admit their sample size was small, and that some measurements were statistically insignificant, but they say their results are strong enough to show that stretching has a more dramatic effect in lowering blood pressure compared to walking.
Other ways to lower blood pressure include cutting sugar intake, eating more potassium, getting a good night's rest, reducing caffeine consumption and limiting alcohol intake, according to Healthline.
The team plans on expanding its study to a larger sample of people to test why stretching lowers blood pressure, such as changes in arterial stiffness and in the body's nervous system.