Aerobic Exercise Benefits Stroke Survivors: Review

Aerobic exercise programs provide tangible benefits for stroke survivors, a new meta-analysis suggests.

Due to the impairments in movement caused by stroke, survivors are at an elevated risk for cardiovascular disease and another stroke. Unlike for cardiac rehabilitation, analyses of aerobic programs in stroke survivors had been lacking.

“The physical therapy we currently provide to patients after a stroke focuses more on improving the ability to move and move well rather than on increasing how far and long you can move,” said Elizabeth Regan, DPT, lead author, and PhD candidate in Exercise Science at the University of South Carolina, in a press release. “It doesn’t matter how well you can walk if your endurance level keeps you at home.”

The systematic review and meta-analysis, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, reviewed aerobic programs for stroke survivors that were similar in both activity and dosage levels to a conventional cardiac rehabilitation program, and their effects on improving aerobic and walking capacity. The researchers reviewed five databases using PRISMA guidelines, and ended up reviewing 19 studies that met study selection criteria. There were a total of 23 treatment groups in the analysis (485 total participants) between ages 54 and 71. The analysis included studies with group interventions for stroke survivors with an aerobic component matching cardiac rehabilitation requirements. The 6-minute talk test, maximal oxygen consumption (VO2) peak, and walking speed as measures of aerobic capacity.

According to the results, stroke survivors saw improved aerobic capacity with an effect size of 0.38 (95% CI, 0.27 to 0.49), and studies that included a 6-minute walk test saw a pooled difference in means of 53.3 meters in distance (95% CI, 36.8 to 69.8).

“Cardiac rehab programs may be a viable option for patients after a stroke who have health risks and endurance losses similar to traditional cardiac rehab participants,” Stacy Fritz, PhD, PT, a co-author on the study and associate professor of exercise science in the Physical Therapy Program at the University of South Carolina, said in a press release. “Almost every hospital has a cardiac rehab program, so it’s an existing platform that could be used for stroke survivors. Funneling patients with stroke into these existing programs may be an easy, cost-effective solution with long-term benefits.”