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Exercise may bring major benefits after mini stroke

High blood pressure and two TIAs left Norma Reid feeling anxious and uncertain. The 72-year-old retired Toronto teacher and homemaker worried about having another transient ischemic attack, or mini-stroke, and she was fearful about her risk of a big stroke with permanent disabilities.

And, then, she joined a research study at the Heart and Stroke Foundation Canadian Partnership for Stroke Recovery (CPSR).  Now, she walks every day. She uses hand-held weights. She feels stronger.  “I’m more hopeful for the future,” she says. “I’m more energetic. My blood pressure is good. If I keep this up, I may prevent having another TIA or a stroke.”

Reid is among 30 participants in a CPSR research study examining the benefits of a modified six-month cardiac rehab program for TIA patients – the kind of walking, weight and resistance training routinely given to patients following a heart attack.

Earlier CSR studies have proven the benefits of exercise for stroke patients, including improvements to the way they move, think and process information. But, until now, no one has studied the impact of exercise after a TIA, which does not leave lasting physical disabilities but increases the risk of a major stroke.

Although final results are not expected for a year, CPSR researchers are working to determine the required mix of aerobic exercise and resistance training for stroke patients and the duration and kind of exercises that provide the greatest improvement to blood flow and to building muscle mass. “We are trying to change the risk factors so we can minimize the incidence of stroke,” says lead investigator Dr. Dina Brooks, a professor at the University of Toronto.

This project is part of a broader package of studies on the effects of exercise post-stroke, a new and emerging area of stroke recovery research in which the CPSR is considered an international leader.

Investigator Dr. Susan Marzolini of Toronto Rehabilitation Institute said an upcoming phase of stroke recovery research will examine the impact of a number of different exercise programs on cognition (the way people think and process information) by using imaging technology to measure blood flow to the brain and by measuring changes in muscle mass. Previous work has shown that building muscle mass is directly associated with improved brain function.

As for Norma, she is anxious to support further research but thinks some benefits cannot be measured.  “I have made so many new friends in the study. They are all just wonderful people. The whole experience has been excellent.”

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