Stretching May Help Slow Cognitive Decline as Well as Aerobic Exercise

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New research suggests that stretching and balancing exercises may also be able to help slow the speed of mild cognitive decline. Sergey Narevskih/Stocksy
  • New data suggests regular stretching, balance, and range-of-motion exercises may be as beneficial as aerobic exercises in slowing down mild cognitive decline.
  • Researchers say the new data makes using physical activity to slow mild cognitive decline more accessible.
  • Other experts say these types of movements have other physical health benefits.

Simple movement, including regular stretching, balance, and range of motion exercises, might be just as effective in slowing mild cognitive decline as aerobic exercises.

It may sound like a stretch, but new research suggests it’s science. Researchers presented the data at the 2022 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in San Diego on Aug. 2.

To perform the study, they followed 296 sedentary older adults already diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (MCI). This condition can lead to Alzheimer’s Disease, although it’s not a given.

Half of the participants were instructed to do aerobic exercises on treadmills and stationary bikes at a moderate intensity of about 120 heartbeats per minute for 30 to 40 minutes. The rest were told to perform functional stretching, balance, and range of motion exercises. The groups worked with a personal trainer twice a week and alone on two additional days for a year.

At the end of the year, researchers performed cognitive testing and brain scans. Neither group’s cognitive decline got worse, nor did scans indicate brain shrinkage had occurred.

previously, 2016 research suggested that aerobic exercise could help executive function, attentional capacity, processing speed, episodic memory, and procedural memory. But some older adults may have issues gaining physical activity.

Lead researcher Laura Baker, a neuroscientist at Wake Forest School of Medicine, said the new study’s results suggest “this is doable for everybody,” and not just older adults able to perform moderate-intensity exercises, according to an AP report.

There are a few limitations to the study. First, previous research has indicated that people who do not exercise at all have experienced significant cognitive decline. According to the AP, the National Institute of Aging said that looking at non-exercisers in the same study could have offered better proof of the findings.

And one personal trainer cautions that the study does not show that stretching alone slows MCI because other types of gentle movement, such as balance exercises, were included.

“Typically, stretching is the control group in an exercise and brain health study, and this study could have incorporated a third group, which is an active control that only does stretching, to further elucidate what may be happening here,” Ryan SmoothCPT, NBC-HWC, a California-based personal trainer and brain health coach for the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center.

Still, there are takeaways from the study. Experts shed light on what people can learn from the study and how to incorporate gentle movement into their lifestyle.

Jordan GlennPhD, the senior vice president of clinical development at neurotracksays that there are several risk factors associated with MCI and the progression of Alzheimer’s Disease that stretching may help alleviate, including:

Though stretching may not elevate the heart rate, it does require a person to use their brains.

“Stretching and range of motion exercises force you to focus on your body and to create mind-muscle connections to achieve proper form,” says Nancy Mitchell, RN, who has worked with older patients for nearly four decades. “If you’ve ever taken a yoga class, you’d understand the mental energy it takes to get into pigeon pose.”

Mitchell says the amount of concentration involved in stretching and balance-related activities may stimulate the areas of the brain responsible for thinking and memory, thereby slowing cognitive decline.

Some experts stress that stretching, balance, and range of motion exercises are also important for physical health and day-to-day functioning, particularly as people get older.

Sean KinsmanPT, DPT, the chief clinical officer at RecoveryOnenotes stretching can help with:

  • injury prevention
  • joint function
  • subjective reports of stiffness
  • maintaining good posture for load-bearing mechanics
  • inflammation

The participants in the study performed stretches, range of motion, and balance exercises four times per week. Kinsman says daily stretching is ideal. Another personal trainer agrees but says a routine similar to that of the study participants is also beneficial. But remaining consistent is important.

“When you stretch a muscle, it stretches out, but then it shortens again over time,” says David Candy, PT, DPT, OCS, ATC, CMTPT, FAAOMPT, the owner of More 4 Life.

Kinsman says it’s important to consider two key components of soft tissue when incorporating gentle movement, particularly stretches, into your routine: elastic and plastic range.

“With the elastic range, the stretch is performed, but there is no lasting change to the muscle or tendon length, and it simply rebounds to its normal pliability/length capacity, much like an elastic,” Kinsman says. “The plastic range is pushing beyond the elastic range to make permanent changes to the length and pliability of the tissue,”

What does this mean for people when stretching?

“Stretching into the elastic range can be helpful for warming up and promoting looseness in the joints,” Kinsman says. “Stretching into the plastic range can impact those areas as well as promote better posture, break up muscle tension, prevent injury, reduce inflammation, and foster healing.”

Holding a stretch for more than 90 seconds can allow a person to reach the plastic range of stretching the tissue. But he says it doesn’t have to be done all at once.

“[It can] also can be broken up, most commonly three reps of 30-second holds,” Kinsman says.

Candy stresses it’s important to never take a move to the point of discomfort.

Glatt recommends working with a personal trainer or physical therapist that can create a personalized plan based on your needs, goals, and abilities.

Kinsman suggests keeping the movements simple and listening to your body.

“I recommend gentle stretches in positions of comfort,” Kinsman says.

Some of the exercises he most commonly recommends are:

Upper trapezius stretch for the neck

  1. Grasp your arm onto something behind you, like the chair you are sitting on.
  2. Turn your head slightly in the opposite direction.
  3. Turn your head down. It’s “kind of like sniffing your armpit,” Kinsman says.
  4. Repeat on the opposite side.

Lumbar trunk rotation

  1. Lie on your back.
  2. Rotate your arms and head in one direction.
  3. Bend knees upwards.
  4. Rotate them in the opposite direction.
  5. Repeat on the opposite side.

Cat/camel pose

Kinsman notes that this pose should only be done by individuals who can tolerate being on their hands and knees.

  1. Get onto hands and knees with hands directly under shoulder blades and knees and hips in one line.
  2. Arch your mid back. Kinsman says you should look like the angry cats on Halloween decorations.
  3. Arch your back down like a camel’s hump where someone would sit.

Hip flexor stretch

  1. Place one foot on a step and keep the other behind you.
  2. Lean forward onto the front knee while keeping the spine neutral.”You should feel a frontal pull in the opposite hip,” Kinsman says.
  3. Repeat on the opposite side.

Child’s pose/prayer stretch

Kinsman says people should only try this exercise if they can tolerate being on their knees.

  1. Get on your hands and knees.
  2. Sit back on your heels and slide your arms forward.
  3. Tilt your head slightly down, and feel the stretch in the shoulders or middle or lower back.

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