"The straightforward explanation is that if you are physically fit you can compensate better for the deficit cause by the stroke because you have more reserve," he said. "That may not be the whole picture, but it is probably much of it."
But the study results are also still preliminary, the researchers said. "Our findings should be seen as exploratory, requiring confirmation, ideally in a longitudinal study of exercise in an older population," they wrote.
Whatever the effect of prior exercise might be on easing the effects of a stroke, there is evidence that "it leads to a decreased risk of having a stroke to begin with," said Dr. Larry B. Goldstein, director of the Duke Stroke Center.
"There are several studies showing a decreased risk of stroke and of cardiovascular disease in general," Goldstein said. "That is reasonably well-established, even though there have been no randomized trials, just observational studies."
As for exercise after a stroke, "the evidence is still evolving, but it seems that being physically active helps," Goldstein said. "People who exercise seem to do better functionally. Also, it seems to help in secondary prevention. Being physically active helps reduce the risk of a second stroke."
That's important, he said, because "the best way to treat a stroke is not to have it."
SOURCES: James F. Meschia, M.D., professor, neurology, Mayo Clinic, Jacksonville, Fla.; Larry B. Goldstein, M.D., director, Duke Stroke Center, Durham, N.C.; July 13, 2009, Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, online
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