In addition to measuring flexibility, touching your toes may indicate your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Performance on sit-and-reach tests can be a sign of the risk of an early death heart attack or stroke among people 40 years old and older, according to a study in the American Journal of Physiology.
Since arterial stiffness often heralds cardiovascular disease, a test of how far you can reach beyond your toes from a sitting position could be a quick, easy, inexpensive indicator of how stiff your arteries are.
“Our findings have potentially important clinical implications because trunk flexibility can be easily evaluated,” said one of the authors, Kenta Yamamoto. “This simple test might help to prevent age-related arterial stiffening.”
Although it isn’t known why flexibility of the body in middle age and older would be related to arterial flexibility, the authors speculate that stretching exercises may trigger physiological reactions that slow the stiffening of arteries connected with aging.
Healthy blood vessels are elastic, and elasticity helps maintain healthy blood pressure. Arteries stiffen with age, and stiff arteries are a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and death. Previous studies have shown that physical fitness can delay arterial stiffness and the authors of this study theorize that a flexible body could be a quick way to determine arterial flexibility.
The researchers divided 526 healthy, non-smoking adults ages 20 to 83 into three age groups: young (20-39), middle aged (40-59), and older (60-83), to perform a sit-and-reach test. They sat on the floor with their backs against the wall and their legs straight. They slowly bent forward and reached out with their arms. They were classified as either poor or high flexibility, depending on how far they could reach.
The study found that trunk flexibility was a good predictor of artery stiffness among middle age and older volunteers but not among the younger group. They also found that systolic blood pressure (the highest pressure that occurs when the heart contracts) was higher in poor flexibility than in high flexibility groups.
“These findings suggest a possibility that improving flexibility induced by the stretching exercise may be capable of modifying age-related arterial stiffening in middle-aged and older adults,” Yamamoto said. “We believe that flexibility exercises, such as stretching, yoga and Pilates, should be integrated as a new recommendation into the known cardiovascular benefits of regular exercise.”
However, there are other possibilities as to why bodily flexibility should be an indicator of arterial stiffness, including the possibility that the amount of collagen and elastin, which makes muscles flexible, also makes arteries flexible.