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Many stroke survivors can safely step it up

A physical therapist helps a man walk between parallel bars.

Sept. 13, 2019—After a stroke, a rehabilitation program is a key part of recovery. Now, a new study suggests that many stroke survivors could benefit even more if they pushed their bodies harder in rehab.

Not challenging enough?

In a traditional stroke rehab program, patients work on their mobility and balance by walking forward at a low intensity. But the authors of this study argued that this approach doesn't prepare stroke survivors for the real-world challenges they'll face. For instance, they may have to climb stairs, change directions and negotiate uneven surfaces.

Could more intense workouts that better mimic everyday life offer more benefits?

To find out, the researchers divided 90 recent stroke survivors into three walking groups:

  • The first group practiced varying tasks at a high intensity. For instance, they walked on uneven surfaces, up an incline, over obstacles and across a balance beam.
  • A second group did the same variety of tasks, but at a gentler pace.
  • A third group practiced walking forward only, but at a high pace.

Among the key findings: People in both of the high-intensity walking groups could walk faster and farther after rehab than those who had trained at a low intensity. And people in the first group saw more improvements in balance.

What about the risks?

The harder workouts were safe for the stroke survivors in this study. None of the participants were injured in falls or had any life-threatening health problems as a result. And they were no more likely than the low-intensity group to experience minor problems, like joint pain or dizziness. This suggests that stroke survivors could safely participate in a high-intensity rehab program in order to gain more benefits, the study authors said.

The study was published in the American Heart Association journal Stroke.

The road to recovery

Physical therapy is just one part of stroke rehabilitation. Learn about other kinds of therapy that can help too.

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