It’s well-known that regular exercise can help cut your risk for a stroke. Now, new research shows fitness may have an added bonus, cutting the severity of a stroke should one occur.
So finds a study of more than 900 stroke survivors. It found that fitter people were twice as likely as sedentary folk to have a mild stroke rather than a severe one.
“This study highlights the benefit of exercise, especially in older adults,” Muhib Khan, MD, section chief of Spectrum Health Medical Group Neurology said.
“It is interesting to note that mild exercise such as walking daily is better than no exercise in decreasing the severity of stroke.”
Dr. Khan noted that although this study did not investigate the effect of exercise on stroke recovery, earlier research has shown that individuals who exercised regularly prior to their stroke had better recovery from their stroke as compared to those who led sedentary lives.
“Exercise is the 401K of health,” he said. “The more you put in it, the better your health is in old age.”
“Find ways to incorporate physical activity into your everyday life,” she said. “This could mean taking the stairs instead of the elevator, walking or bicycling to work.”
And there was no sign that intense workouts were necessary. The benefit was seen among older adults who walked for an average of 35 minutes a day.
“Stay physically active. Keep on walking,” advised senior researcher Dr. Katharina Sunnerhagen.
The findings do not prove that exercise, itself, was responsible, said Sunnerhagen, a professor at the University of Gothenburg, in Sweden.
But she said it’s clear that regular activity has a range of health benefits—and less severe strokes may be one of them.
The findings were published online Sept. 19 in Neurology. They’re based on 925 older adults treated for a stroke at the same hospital. When the patients started post-stroke rehab, they were asked about their usual exercise habits before the stroke.
Overall, 48 percent said they’d been active.
Most of the patients had suffered a mild stroke, based on tests of their movement, speech and other abilities when they were hospitalized. But physically active people were particularly likely to have a mild stroke: 85 to 89 percent did, versus 73 percent of sedentary people, the findings showed.
There could, of course, be other differences between physically active and inactive seniors, Sunnerhagen said.
But, she added, her team factored in health conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes, as well as age and smoking habits. And in the end, exercise was linked to a twofold greater chance of having a mild stroke rather than a more severe one.
Importantly, the researchers said, “light” exercise appeared to be enough. Most of the active adults got the equivalent of four hours of walking each week.
There are simple ways to build up to light activity levels, Sunnerhagen said.
Nicole Spartano, a research assistant professor of medicine at Boston University, wrote an editorial published with the findings.
She said a “wealth of studies” have already found that exercise may lower the risk of suffering a stroke in the first place. Now there’s evidence it can also reduce stroke severity.
This latest study has limitations, Spartano pointed out. For one, patients were asked to recall their pre-stroke activity habits, and that can be hard for people to estimate.
So it’s hard to tell what “dose” of exercise might be best, Spartano said.
Still, she agreed that the findings suggest heavy amounts of exercise are not needed.
Sunnerhagen suggested people should find activities they truly enjoy, so they can keep them up for the long haul.
Older adults who are sedentary, she said, may want to talk to their doctor before taking up exercise. They might also find it helpful to turn exercise into a social activity, she noted—by taking walks with a friend, for example.
Why would active seniors suffer less severe strokes?
Spartano said that animal research offers some clues: Exercise seems to promote “redundancies” in the blood vessels supplying the brain—meaning multiple arteries supply the same brain area.
Strokes occur when the brain’s blood supply is suddenly lessened, usually by a clot in an artery. So it’s possible that active people have more protection against brain damage when that happens, Spartano said.