Safety / Injuries | Special Population

How does exercise help stroke victims?

How does exercise help stroke victims?

Having a stroke changes a person’s life. It involves a long road to recovery with a fairly decent risk of a repeat.

Those who suffer from stroke have roughly a four in ten chance of having a repeat stroke in the decade following the initial incident. As such, it’s important to train clients who have suffered a stroke with special care and focus.

The professional personal trainer will successfully build a program for a stroke victim client and coach them through to program completion. As you can imagine, when someone suffers a stroke and loses their independence, lack of motivation becomes a barrier to success.

What is a Stroke?

According to the National Stroke Association, a stroke is a condition resulting from an interruption or severe reduction in blood flow to the brain.1 It’s an emergency medical condition and should be handled by an immediate call to 9-1-1, as the earlier treatment is rendered, the less severe the results will be.

The good news is, many more people survive strokes than did 15 years ago, meaning that there is a greater need for people to help rehabilitate and work with stroke victims.

There are several types of strokes, but eighty-five percent of strokes are ischemic strokes. These occur when the arteries leading to the brain are restricted or outright cut off. The next common type of stroke is a hemorrhagic stroke. These occur when there’s a leak or rupture in a blood vessel. Another common type, known colloquially as a “mini-stroke” is a transient ischemic attack or TIA. Although TIA can be temporary, it’s still essential to treat it like a full-on stroke, just in case. The symptoms are identical and brain damage can still occur from TIA.

Complications from Stroke

Stroke affects everyone differently. People may become emotionally fraught, have pain or numbness in various areas of the body, difficulty talking and swallowing, and paralysis.

These complications make recovery seem like a constant uphill struggle. When training a client, something as minor as being able to swallow sips of water or having a side-bias from paralysis will have a dramatic effect on the regimen you put together. Thus, it’s important to treat each case differently. Be sure to do a thorough interview with your client and ask to consult with their physical or occupational therapist, as we discuss below.

Become Part of the Team

The most successful treatment plan for stroke victims is a team approach. Once the individual has been given the approval by their medical care team to continue exercise, it’s essential that you become an active part of that team.

Get your client’s permission to contact their doctor and especially their physical therapist. This will enable you to gain valuable training insights and help prevent doing harm.

Safety is the most important component of your training regimen. Remember that priority here isn’t “gains,” your priority should be your client’s recovery and quality of life. So what’s the best course of action for training stroke victims?

Developing a Plan Based on Science

There has been a great deal of research in the past decade which has spotlighted the benefits of exercise to a stroke victims recovery. But what’s the best path? What are the goals?

In a lot of cases, the answers here will be subject to the type of stroke and the work already done by physical therapists. But in general, the objectives start with functionality and move into a better quality of life.

Often times, these goals will be addressed concurrently, as something that makes an individual more functional will also improve their quality of life, but it’s important to keep safety in mind. Trainers can sometimes get a little too zealous in their programming and for a stroke victim, this is dangerous.

Click image to view full infographic or download PDF here and print for your clients.

People with Stroke Workout Program

The Right Approach

The research indicates that both aerobic conditioning and progressive resistance training are immensely helpful in recovering patients. This doesn’t mean that your client will be running any Ironmans in the near future, though.

Keep in mind that cardio can be as simple as sitting on a recumbent bike, walking down hallways, movement in a pool, etc. It doesn’t have to be highly structured in the beginning. Ramping up will be the biggest challenge. Just move forward slowly.

The American Heart Association and American Stroke Association recommend setting a goal for your client to eventually participate in the daily physical activity.3 In the beginning, it might be as little as 10 minutes a few times a week, but as the patient becomes more confident and builds strength and endurance, you can begin to increase the duration of this exercise.

Once able, resistance training has yielded amazing results (compared to a control group) in terms of regaining mobility.4 It can even improve both paretic and nonparetic lower extremity strength — that being mobility lost either in part or completely as a result of the stroke.

While keeping safety in mind, remember that a common outcome from a stroke is a loss of function on an entire side of the body. This makes symmetrical lifts and resistance exercises very difficult. For these cases, it’s probably best to stick with resistance bands and light dumbbells to specifically target weaker areas.

Keep Spirits Up!

One of the biggest challenges you’ll likely face is the crushing depression that can often go hand-in-hand with a stroke and the resulting loss of mobility. So take a little time to gauge where they’re at. Offer encouragement — even more than you normally would. Keeping people’s spirits up and keeping them safe will go a long way to a stronger, more confident recovery. Learn more about this type of training with the Exercise Therapy Specialist program.

Jane Curth

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