THURSDAY, Feb. 2, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Doctors have long known that regular exercise can help lower the risk of stroke, but a new study suggests that people who are physically fit also have better odds of recovery if they do suffer a stroke.
Researchers in Spain found that people who were more physically active before a stroke responded much better to clot-busting drugs, had less brain damage and were more likely to recover their motor skills than more sedentary patients.
"Physical activity seems to prepare the brain to face stroke in a better and more efficient way," said study author Dr. Ana Clara Ricciardi Ciocchini, a stroke researcher at the Hospital Universitari Germans Trias i Pujol in Barcelona.
"We obviously expected to obtain favorable findings, but the results were not only positive but highly significant," said Ricciardi Ciocchini. "Physical activity previous to stroke is strongly associated with a better prognosis, and the higher the level of pre-stroke physical activity, the higher the probability of a better outcome."
Stroke, which occurs when blood supply to the brain becomes blocked, is a leading cause of death and disability in the United States.
The study is scheduled for presentation Thursday at an American Stroke Association meeting in New Orleans.
The researchers studied 159 stroke patients, average age 68, and assessed their level of physical activity prior to the stroke using standard questionnaires. The patients were divided into three levels of physical activity: low, medium and high. The 90 patients who had either medium or high levels of physical activity were younger and had less severe strokes than the 69 patients in the low category, and also had lower blood pressure and blood glucose levels.
Patients with the highest level of activity were more likely to have blood flow restored within two hours of receiving tPA, a medication that dissolves blood clots and reopens arteries. The researchers found that 62 percent of patients in the highest level had an early response to the drug, compared with 35 percent in the middle range and none in the lowest level.
The study also revealed that 89 percent of stroke patients with the highest level of physical activity recovered their motor skills, compared with 69 percent of the patients in the medium group, and 4 percent of those in the low category.
Ricciardi Ciocchini said the findings provide more evidence of the myriad health benefits that come from regular exercise.
"It is unlikely that a single drug or even a group of molecules will ever be slightly close to reaching the whole beneficial effects of physical activity," she said. "Practicing regular physical activity should be strongly recommended to all patients, and especially to those with cardiovascular risk factors."
Dr. Michael Frankel, director of vascular neurology at Emory University School of Medicine and director of the Marcus Stroke & Neuroscience Center at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, was intrigued by the findings but said more research is needed.
"While it is no surprise that people who are more physically fit will fare better than those who aren't, it is interesting to consider fitness as a key factor in determining whether acutely blocked cerebral arteries will open up in response to treatment," said Frankel. "These findings require further study to confirm."
Studies presented at scientific conferences should be considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health has more on the benefits of exercise.