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Why To Exercise Today: So You Don't Have A Stroke

(Matthew Kenwrick/Flickr)
(Matthew Kenwrick/Flickr)

Don't use the heat as an excuse.  You can always climb stairs in an air-conditioned office building or run over to the gym. Or, if you're lucky enough to be out of town, jump in the lake for a long, glorious, vigorous swim.

In any case, you should do something. According to new research, breaking a sweat while exercising regularly may reduce your risk of stroke. You've heard it before. But it's worth restating. Why wouldn't you run around a little a few times a week to possibly avoid the horrible physical ordeal of a stroke? Particularly if you live in a part of the country known for its high stroke rate? But enough nagging.

The new, NIH-funded study of more than 27,000 Americans, 45 years and older who were followed for an average of 5.7 years, was published today in the American Heart Association journal Stroke. Most participants, equally divided between men and women, black and white, lived in regions of the southeastern U.S., known as "the stroke belt."

From the AHA news release:


  • One-third of participants reported being inactive, exercising less than once a week.
  • Inactive people were 20 percent more likely to experience a stroke or mini-stroke than those who exercised at moderate to vigorous intensity (enough to break a sweat) at least four times a week.
  • Among men, only those who exercised at moderate or vigorous intensity four or more times a week had a lowered stroke risk.
  • Among women, the relationship between stroke and frequency of activity was less clear."The stroke-lowering benefits of physical activity are related to its impact on other risk factors," said Michelle McDonnell, Ph.D., study author and Lecturer in the School of Health Sciences at the International Centre for Allied Health Evidence, University of South Australia. "Exercise reduces blood pressure, weight and diabetes. If exercise was a pill, you'd be taking one pill to treat four or five different conditions."The study — the first to quantify protective effects of physical activity on stroke in a large multiracial group of men and women in the United States — supports previous findings that physical inactivity is second only to high blood pressure as a risk factor for stroke.

And here's more from the NIH on the study, officially called Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) study.

A stroke can occur when a blood vessel in the brain gets blocked. As a result, nearby brain cells will die after not getting enough oxygen and other nutrients. A number of risk factors for stroke have been identified, including smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes and being inactive...

REGARDS is a large, long-term study funded by the NIH National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) to look at the reasons behind the higher rates of stroke mortality among African-Americans and other residents living in the Southeastern United States.

"Epidemiological studies such as REGARDS provide an important opportunity to explore race, genetics, environmental, and lifestyle choices as stroke risk factors," said Claudia Moy, Ph.D., program director at NINDS.

Over 30,000 participants supplied their medical history over the phone. The researchers also visited them to obtain health measures such as body mass index and blood pressure. At the beginning of the study, the researchers asked participants how many times per week they exercised vigorously enough to work up a sweat. The researchers contacted participants every six months to see if they had experienced a stroke or a mini-stroke known as a transient ischemic attack (TIA). To confirm their responses, the researchers reviewed participants' medical records.

The researchers reported data for over 27,000 participants who were stroke-free at the start of the study and followed for an average of 5.7 years. One-third of participants reported exercising less than once a week. Study subjects who were inactive were 20 percent more likely to experience a stroke or TIA than participants who exercised four or more times a week.

The findings revealed that regular, moderately vigorous exercise, enough to break a sweat, was linked to reduced risk of stroke. Part of the protective effect was due to lower rates of known stroke risk factors such as hypertension, diabetes, obesity and smoking.

"Our results confirm other research findings but our study has the distinct advantage of including larger numbers, especially larger numbers of women as well as blacks, in a national population sample so these provide somewhat more generalizable results than other studies," said Virginia Howard, Ph.D., senior author of the study from the School of Public Health, University of Alabama at Birmingham.

The researchers also looked at the data according to gender. After the researchers accounted for age, race, socioeconomic factors (education and income) and stroke risk factors, the results revealed that men who exercised at least four times a week still had a lower risk of stroke than men who exercised one to three times per week. In contrast, there was no association between frequency of exercise and stroke risk among women in the study. However, there was a trend towards a similar reduction in stroke risk for those who exercised one to three times a week and four or more times a week compared to those who were inactive.

"This could be related to differences in the type, duration, and intensity of physical activity between men and women," said Dr. Howard. "This could also be due to differences in the perception of what is intense physical activity enough to work up a sweat."

The results should encourage doctors to stress the importance of exercise when speaking with their patients, Dr. Howard said.

"Physical inactivity is a major modifiable risk factor for stroke. This should be emphasized in routine physician check-ups along with general education about the benefits of exercise on stroke risk factors including high blood pressure, diabetes and being overweight or obese," she said.

The study suggests that men should consider exercising at least four times a week.

This program aired on July 18, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Rachel Zimmerman Twitter Health Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for Bostonomix.

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