The bad news: strokes remain the second leading cause of death worldwide. Nearly three-quarters of all victims are 65 years or older, but strokes can happen to anyone at any age.
The good news: thanks to medical advances, more and more people are living through these cerebrovascular accidents. For the millions of us who are stroke survivors, or count them among our loved ones, there’s even better news.
Historically, rehabilitation concentrated on restoring basic functions, like walking, and ended within a year. But evidence suggests that healing can continue and that regular exercise offers crucial, ongoing benefits.
One 2015 study out of the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio found that survivors who cycled on a motorized stationary bike before undertaking repetitive tasks to regain arm function showed greater gains than those who simply doubled the reps or cycled at a leisurely pace. Other studies have shown that exercise improves mobility many months after a stroke and diminishes the decline in physical function that leaves survivors at higher risk of a second life-threatening cardiovascular event.
In other words, providing that a doctor signs off, exercise should start early and continue indefinitely.
“In the first days after a stroke, even if the patients cannot move a limb, I tell them to imagine they are,” says Xabier Urra, a vascular neurologist at the Hospital Clinic of Barcelona who is researching the possible benefits of beginning aerobic exercise in the first 24 hours after a stroke. “There are studies that show that when you imagine a motor task, you activate areas in the brain that are very similar to the ones that are activated when the motor task is actually performed.”
Otherwise, the fundamentals of stroke prevention haven’t changed. If you improve your diet, quit smoking, exercise a few times a week and control hypertension and cholesterol, your risk of stroke will plummet.