Stretching is commonly prescribed with the intended purpose of increasing range of motion, enhancing muscular coordination, and preventing prolonged immobilization induced by aging or a sedentary lifestyle. Emerging evidence suggests that acute or long-term stretching exercise may modulate a variety of cardiovascular responses. Specifically, at the onset of stretch, the mechanical deformation of the vascular bed coupled with stimulation of group III muscle afferent fibers initiates a cascade of events resulting in both peripheral vasodilation and a heart rate-driven increase in cardiac output, blood pressure, and muscle blood flow. This potential to increase shear stress and blood flow without the use of excessive muscle energy expenditure may hold important implications for future therapeutic vascular medicine and cardiac health. However, the idea that a cardiovascular component may be involved in human skeletal muscle stretching is relatively new. Therefore, the primary intent of this review is to highlight topics related to skeletal muscle stretching and cardiovascular regulation and function.
The current evidence suggests that acute stretching causes a significant macro- and microcirculatory event that alters blood flow and the relationship between oxygen availability and oxygen utilization. These acute vascular changes if performed chronically may result in improved endothelial function, improved arterial blood vessel stiffness, and/or reduced blood pressure. Although several mechanisms have been postulated, an increased nitric oxide bioavailability has been highlighted as one promising candidate for the improvement in vessel function with stretching.
Collectively, the evidence provided in this review suggests that stretching acutely or long term may serve as a novel and alternative low intensity therapeutic intervention capable of improving several parameters of vascular function.