Neurologic Advantage to Actively Stretching

Studies show that stretching can increase memory and brain activity.
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Your brain benefits from a stretch as much as your muscles do, according to some recent studies. Stretching can help your memory, reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s and may even help you think more clearly. You may even be able to stretch yourself happy.

Studies Say

The results of three recent studies show that physical activity can keep an adult’s brain healthy and more active, Heather Snyder, senior associate director of medical and scientific relations for the Alzheimer’s Association, told "U.S. News" in 2012. In some cases, exercise can cause the hippocampus -- your mind’s memory bank -- to grow. In one study, half of participants stretched and toned and changed nothing else about their lifestyles, and the other half added moderate aerobic activity to their weekly routine. While aerobic activity boosted the brain more effectively than just stretching and toning, those who only stretched and toned still performed better on memory and thinking tests one year into the study than they had at its onset. “These studies really start to strengthen the literature about the impact that physical activity may have to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease,” Snyder said.

Stretching Benefits

“The brain responds to stretching and challenging exercises in every stage of life,” Richard Restak, author of “Think Smart: A Neuroscientist’s Prescription for Improving Your Brain’s Performance,” told NPR in 2009. A 2007 study out of Louisiana University in Baton Rouge backs up Restak’s claim, with results showing that the benefits of stretching extend beyond increased range of motion. In her book “Stretching,” Suzanne Martin, a physical therapist, likens stretching to a neurological panacea. “Stretching affects not only our muscle system but also our neurological system, which includes the operation of the brain,” she writes. “When you stretch, you lengthen some areas while relaxing others. The brain in turn regulates automatic functions such as heart rate and blood pressure. It secretes hormones, which act as chemical messengers to help insulin control, metabolism, mood and emotion.” So the next time you’re in a bad mood, some simple stretches may give you the lift you need.

Simple Stretches

When you’re stretching, start where you feel muscle tightness and work your way through your major muscle groups, including your calves, thighs, hips, lower back, neck and shoulders, recommends. Avoid rushing into or out of a stretch. Easing in and holding the stretch for at least 30 seconds will help maximize the benefits for your brain and for your body. If you sit in front of a computer all day, stretching your neck may help ease any tension you feel. Gently let your chin drop, slowly rotate it clockwise until you’re back where you started and then rotate it counterclockwise. Actively stretch every day, Martin suggests, to get the most out of it.

Keep In Mind

To help prevent injury and muscle strain, cautions, warm up with some light cardio before stretching. And if something starts to hurt while you're stretching, you should stop. Stretching shouldn’t be painful. Talk to your doctor if you have concerns about your health, to find out which stretches are right for you. You may not notice a difference in your memory or mood right away, but the longer you make stretching part of your daily routine, the better your brain will be.

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