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Could Physical Activity Reduce Stroke Severity?

The results of a recent study suggested that walking 4 hours or more a week or 2 to 3 hours of moderate physical activity may have a (slight) protective effect of reducing stroke severity in persons who get a stroke. The study, which was conducted in Sweden, found that persons who were physically more active before their stroke and were younger in age were more likely to have a mild stroke (rather than a moderate or severe stroke). This finding was an association (didn't prove it).

But ...the majority of persons participating in the study - whether they exercised or not before the stroke - had mild strokes, and a minority in all of the groups had moderate or severe strokes. 73% of physically inactive people, 85% of those with light physical activity, and 89% of  those who had engaged in moderate physical activity before their strokes had mild strokesResearchers found that light (walking or a similar activity for at least 4 hours per week) and moderate physical activity (2 to 3 hours per week) were equally beneficial. From Medical Xpress:

People who walk just 35 minutes a day may have less severe strokes

People who participate in light to moderate physical activity, such as walking at least four hours a week or swimming two to three hours a week, may have less severe strokes than people who are physically inactive, according to a study published in the September 19, 2018, online issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology. 

"Stroke is a major cause of serious disability, so finding ways to prevent stroke or reduce the disability caused by stroke are important," said study author Katharina S. Sunnerhagen, MD, Ph.D., of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. "While exercise benefits health in many ways, our research suggests that even simply getting in a small amount of physical activity each week may have a big impact later by possibly reducing the severity of a stroke."

For the study, researchers looked at two Swedish stroke registries and identified 925 people with an average age of 73 who had a stroke. The registries included data on stroke severity based on symptoms such as eye, arm and facial movements, level of consciousness and language skills. Of study participants, 80 percent had a mild stroke.

Light physical activity was defined as walking at least four hours a week. Moderate physical activity was defined as more intense exercise such as swimming, brisk walking, or running two to three hours a week. Of study participants, 52 percent said they were physically inactive before having their stroke. It is important to note that participants reporting on their own physical activity after having a stroke is a limitation of the study. It is possible that memory may be affected by a stroke, and more so in people with more severe stroke.

Researchers found that people who engaged in light to moderate physical activity before their stroke were twice as likely to have a mild stroke rather than a moderate or severe stroke when compared to people who were physically inactive. Of 481 people who were physically inactive, 354 had mild stroke, or 73 percent. Of 384 who engaged in light physical activity, 330 had mild stroke, or 85 percent. Of 59 people who engaged in moderate physical activity, 53 had mild stroke, or 89 percent. Researchers found that light and moderate physical activity were equally beneficial.

Sunnerhagen noted that the difference in physical activity did not account for a large amount of the difference in stroke severity. When combined with younger age, greater physical activity accounted for only 6.8 percent of the difference between the two groups.

Sunnerhagen also stated that the study does not prove that physical activity reduces stroke severity; it only shows an association.

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