Stretching just 10 minutes a day might help ease menopause and depression symptoms in middle-aged women, a small study suggests.

"Light-intensity exercises such as stretching have not been previously evaluated for its impact on menopausal and depressive symptoms," lead researcher Yuko Kai told Reuters Health by email.

Forty Japanese women, ages 40 to 61 years, participated in the study at the Physical Fitness Research Institute, Meiji Yasuda Life Foundation of Health and Welfare in Tokyo.

Twenty of the women were randomly assigned to stretch 10 minutes a day before bedtime for three weeks. The other 20 were instructed to remain sedentary before bed.

The research team evaluated the women's menopausal symptoms using 10 questions about vasomotor symptoms (such as hot flashes and chills), psychological symptoms (including mood and sleep disturbances) and body aches.

They used a separate set of questions to evaluate symptoms of depression.

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At the start, the groups were generally similar. More than half the participants were postmenopausal and nearly two-thirds had depression. Most of the women were not physically active.

On average, the stretching group stretched about five days per week.

Overall, the women in the stretching group had improved scores on both sets of questions after the three-week study period, compared to the group that didn't stretch before bed.

The frequency of hot flashes wasn't different in the two groups, however.

While stretching before bed isn't a bad idea, Dr. JoAnn Pinkerton, executive director of The North American Menopause Society, told Reuters Health by email, "it is impossible to tell if the positive effect found from stretching on menopausal and depressive symptoms was due to the stretching, the increased movement, or not doing whatever they normally do during the 10 minutes before bed such as eat, smoke or drink, etc."

Pinkerton said the results would have been more interesting if the comparison group had been assigned a task to do before bedtime, to see if it was the stretching itself that was helpful or just the fact of doing something before bed.

In most studies of methods for reducing hot flashes, the placebo group sees some improvement, too, she pointed out. In this trial, the comparison group had no improvement at all, which means, she said, that it was not an adequate control group.

For more conclusive results, Pinkerton said, "this study needs to be replicated with larger, more diverse postmenopausal women with an active control group."

In the meantime, she added, women should remember that "being sedentary has been shown to be bad for (their) physical and mental health and to increase hot flashes. Being active every day has been shown to lessen severity of hot flashes, improve mood, coping ability and may decrease (their) risk of cognitive loss."

Additionally, Pinkerton said, "if women were to exercise with light walking 30 minutes daily and then stretch for 10 minutes, they might improve health, menopausal symptoms, mood and cognition and, if stretching helps sleep, improve their sleep quality."