When someone has had a stroke, the last thing on their mind — or even in the minds of the caregivers — is exercise. Physical therapy or occupational therapy, sure. But actual exercise (i.e. cardio and strength training) is often overlooked.
But as it turns out, structured physical activity may be just what the brain needs to recover after a stroke.
A new meta-analysis looked at several types of physical activity — strength training, aerobic activity, and a combination of the two — and found that they lead to measurable improvements for stroke survivors.
Even programs as short as four weeks improved cognition. And that was true even for patients who have chronic stroke — a notoriously difficult-to-treat population.
Stroke robs 30 to 85 percent of survivors of their pre-stroke mental function. The cognitive decline, in turn, ups risk for other issues, including long-term disability, loss of function in other areas, dependent living, and even death.
So preserving and rebuilding cognitive function after a stroke is incredibly important. And this study found that structured physical activity is an effective way to achieve that. The physical training improved attention and processing speed. And it didn’t matter how long the programs lasted. Those lasting one to three months, as well as those lasting three or more months, had positive effects.
What’s really interesting — and encouraging if you had a stroke a while ago and are just hearing this news — is that improvements were seen regardless of how much time had passed between the stroke and the beginning of the exercise program. People who started their exercise programs within three months of their stroke had cognitive improvements. But so did those who didn’t start until much later.
And we are talking much, much later. Some of the studies analyzed looked at individuals who started exercising on more than two-and-a-half years after their stroke. And those people still experienced cognitive improvement.
The largest gains were seen in people whose exercise programs combined aerobic exercise with stretching, toning, and balance training. Many physical therapy regimens include stretching, balance, and toning, but this analysis points out that it’s important to make sure aerobic activity is part of the mix too.
That doesn’t mean anyone’s expecting a stroke survivor to start marathon training. But even people with limited physical functioning can still incorporate some level of aerobic exercise. A simple brisk walk will suffice. Really, anything that gets the blood pumping can have a substantial effect on mental function, quality of life, and overall functionality.
So here we are with yet another analysis of the health benefits of exercise. I’m still not sure why people are so reluctant to begin a program. Exercise is a lot like eating correctly. Once you get it down right, it’s easy to do and continue doing.
Of course, that’s not to say you will always like it or want to do it. But as the slogan goes—“just do it.” I am an avid exerciser, but remember I also used to be overweight. I hated exercising and I hated eating right. But I do both, because I’ve decided my health is more important than my cravings.
Every day I have a conversation in my mind about eating healthy and getting myself to the gym. The healthy me wins about 95 percent of the time with exercise (and 100 percent with food). But after I’ve put in the time and effort, I am always happy that I did it. I promise you will be too.