The report, published in the July 13 Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, showed that participants in the Ischemic Stroke Genetics Study who exercised for 20 minutes to one hour a day, three times a week did better on two scales that measure the impact of a first stroke.
The first scale used was the Barthel Index, which measures the ability to do twenty basic daily activities such as bathing and dressing. The second scale was more global and measured whether someone can comprehend speech, enjoy reading, or continue working.
The average age of the participants was 70 years old, so working was not a relevant issue for many of them. However, over fifty percent of the participants who reported exercising regularly one to three times per week before their stroke functioned better overall than those who did not exercise. Those who reported exercising four or more times per week functioned better than any of the others.
"The straightforward explanation is that if you are physically fit you can compensate better for the deficit cause by the stroke because you have more reserve," said study senior author Dr. James F. Meschia, a professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla. "That may not be the whole picture, but it is probably much of it."
The findings are seen as preliminary and exploratory, due to the limited number of participants in the study (673 in total). The sample size is not large enough to establish a direct relationship between the amount of exercise and improvements in functioning. A longitudinal study of exercise in an older population would be ideal to confirm the findings, said the researchers.
Other studies support the results of this one, showing that physically fit people have a decreased risk of having a stroke to begin with, that exercise after a stroke helps people do better functionally, and that exercise helps prevent a second stroke.