Research continues to show that walking after a stroke is one of the most important things you can do to promote recovery. Clinical studies prove that walking helps a stroke victim regain strength, stamina and balance.
The National Institute of Health (NIH) maintains that walking is one of the most important parts of a stroke rehabilitation program. The brain needs stimulation to relearn motions that have been lost. Walking – even slow walking – is a movement that triggers this stimulus and increases the flow of oxygen to the brain.
Over time, walking improves muscle strength that may have atrophied due to a stroke. It will also improve:
- Overall resilience
- Emotional and mental outlook
- The ability to mitigate depression and other psychological side effects
A study of 128 stroke survivors with an average age of 68 was recently published in the American Heart Association journal Stroke. It concluded that taking a brisk half-hour walk at least three times a week significantly boosted a stroke survivor’s physical fitness level and their ability to be mobile. It also improved their resting heart rate, a key indicator of cardiovascular health.
The group in the study started out with 15-minute walks, gradually increasing to 30 minutes, three times a week for 12 weeks. They kept their activity level at 60-85% of their maximum heart rate.
After three months, the exercise group walked faster and farther than another group of stroke survivors in the study who remained sedentary. They also reported that their endurance and physical fitness improved, as well as their quality of life.
Walking should be a key component of almost all stroke-rehabilitation programs. Whether walking with a cane or the help of an assistant, stroke survivors should make an effort to put one foot in front of the other.
Start Walking Slowly to Promote Stroke Recovery
Depending on the severity of the stroke, survivors may have atrophied muscles, reduced stamina, and other physical limitations that may make it difficult to take even a few first steps.
The good news is that the NIH reports that 65-85% of stroke victims do learn to walk independently again after 6 months. So don’t despair and start slowly to build endurance.
With fortitude and the right attitude, a gradual walking program can be implemented. Keep the following in mind.
- Walking every day, even for a short period of time makes a difference.
- Start with 10 minutes a day, which can be broken into two 5-minute segments.
- Progress at a slow and steady pace. Don’t push or rush it.
- As endurance and mobility improve, increase the number of minutes walked every day.
- Keep a journal noting how many minutes you walk on a daily basis. To keep it interesting, also take notes about where you walked and what you saw.
- Level terrain is recommended to start. Walking in a backyard or around the block works well.
- You shouldn’t try walking alone in the beginning. Start by walking with a family member or caregiver who can provide assistance as needed. There are also many support groups for stroke survivors who may be alone or without resources for private care.
Most stroke patients receive some post-stroke physical therapy and clinical rehabilitation which involves walking. What’s important is to continue exercising beyond this medically supervised rehab. To the extent other moderate stroke exercises can be incorporated into the walking and recovery program, a patient is likely to benefit even further.
Don’t be discouraged. Small gains over months, may turn into major gains over the years.
5 Stroke Recovery Exercises
The American Stroke Association strongly advocates that exercise is one of the most effective ways to recover from some of the debilitating symptoms of a stroke. Walking is great, but so are other forms of exercise that also build stamina, energy and muscle strength. Try one of these exercises for stroke patients:
- Pedaling on a stationary bicycle. Now there are even portable pedal exercise cycles that can be placed on the floor in front of a chair. No mounting a bicycle required.
- Resistance training. Lifting small weights (1-2.5 pounds) and doing stationary exercises – seated or standing – is excellent resistance training. It doesn’t have to be strenuous to be effective. Weights can also be strapped to ankles and wrists if need be.
- Simple balance exercises. Stand on both feet and raise one or two arms to shoulder height or above the head. Initially use a chair or wall to balance with one arm.
- Stretching exercises. Even easy stretches are beneficial and with time may evolve into “chair yoga” which is offered at many senior centers.
- Water aerobics. A wonderful weightless way to stretch and get a mild cardio workout.
The key is consistency. Stroke recovery requires a steady, repetitive program of walking and exercise to be successful. It should also be as much fun as possible! Take the dog for a walk, stroll through a lovely park or plug in those headphones and listen to your favorite music while you’re on that stationary bike.
The American Stroke Association says that regular physical activity following a stroke can also help reduce the risk of falls and other complications like osteoporosis and heart disease. Exercise has also proven to improve cholesterol levels, manage diabetes, combat obesity and control blood pressure.
So find some fun, comfortable walking shoes (I like my purple ones) and go for a stroll. It’s good for all of us.