Strokes & Exercise - Great Health Guide
Strokes & Exercise

Strokes & Exercise

Written by Jennifer Smallridge

When it comes to strokes and exercise, people often wonder if exercise can reduce the risk of having a stroke. All strokes occur when there is a blockage of or break in the vessels that supply blood to the brain. When the brain cells don’t receive a blood supply, they are deprived of oxygen and the cells start to die.

Types of Strokes:

  • Ischemic stroke occurs when a plaque causes an obstruction within a blood vessel supplying blood to the brain.

  • Haemorrhagic stroke occurs when a weakened blood vessel ruptures and bleeds into the brain area.

  • Mini-stroke also called a transient ischemic attack (TIA) is caused by a temporary clot in the blood vessels.

Understanding a mini-stroke.

Blood vessels were designed to be flexible and free from obstructions, so that oxygenated blood can flow freely to cells, tissues and organs. Over time, small plaques made of cholesterol and calcium can build up on the inside of the vessel walls and if the blood pressure is too high for too long, they can break off and block the blood vessels. When this happens near the brain momentarily, it’s known as a mini-stroke and if there is a complete blockage, an ischaemic stroke has occurred.

Symptoms of a mini-stroke.

Symptoms vary depending on the time that the brain is deprived of oxygen. A mini-stroke, refers to a temporary or transient lack of blood supply to the brain. This is the point where people report stroke-like symptoms – which could include weakness or numbness of the face, arms or legs, dizziness, loss of vision, a sudden and severe headache or nausea and vomiting. Often, these symptoms are present for a few minutes and then disappear, which makes it different to an ischaemic stroke where the symptoms remain and cause moderate to severe effects on the brain.

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Little stroke, big trouble.

After a mini-stroke, the risk of having a stroke is 10 times higher than someone who has never had one. A mini-stroke can be considered a warning sign – and your doctor will prescribe medications to ensure that your heart, blood vessels and brain are as safe as they can be. It’s also a critical time to look at your lifestyle and make sure that your whole body is healthy. There’s no better investment of your time and energy to achieve this than exercise to reduce the risk of stroke.

Why exercise works to lower the risk of stroke:

  • Exercise lowers blood pressure. Having high blood pressure is the single biggest risk factor for having a stroke. Did you know that just one bout of exercise lowers your blood pressure afterwards? 

  • Exercise thins the blood naturally. Regular exercise prevents future stroke events by breaking down fibrous clots in the bloodstream, providing a preventative effect for any cardiovascular disease.

  • Exercise reduces abdominal obesity. Carrying extra weight around your midline is another significant risk factor for stroke.

  • Exercise helps to prevent and manage type 2 diabetes. High blood glucose is another contributor to inflammation and stroke risk.

Special considerations.

Because mini-strokes or TIA’s rarely result in long lasting impairment or damage, they can be easily overlooked and the opportunity for appropriate lifestyle intervention often is missed.

The good news is that gentle physical activity is safe and extremely effective. Simply start with walking and build up to 30 minutes every day. This has been clinically proven to reduce future stroke risk and overall benefit to general health. If you are thinking of exercising at a higher intensity or want to add in strength training exercises, your doctor can make a referral to your local Accredited Exercise Physiologist.

This will ensure that your exercise capacity is measured and you are engaging in the right kind of exercise for your individual health concerns.

If you are fortunate enough not to have had a min-stroke or TIA, but you are concerned about your risk levels, knowledge is power. The best way to know your health profile is to get your cholesterol and blood pressure checked regularly. Start your exercise journey today by taking a walk or even taking the stairs instead of the elevator – your blood vessels will thank you.

Author of this article:

Jennifer Smallridge is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist at Upwell Health Collective in Camberwell, Victoria; as well as an Academic Lecturer in the fields of Exercise Science and Functional Human Anatomy. 

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