A new study from the University of Alabama at Birmingham has identified the connection between exercise and stroke risk. This study was the first to examine how exercise can affect the risk of stroke in a large, biracial cohort of men and women. Researchers found that exercising four or more times weekly was the most effective at reducing stroke risk.

The research was based on the Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) study cohort, which consisted of 27,000 black and white people who were 45 or older and who had never had a stroke. Participants were followed for 5.7 years. The data was used to compare participants’ self-reported levels of physical activity with their incidence of stroke.

The research team established three categories of physical activity: inactive (no workouts in a typical week), moderately active (one to three workouts weekly), or vigorously active (four or more workouts weekly). Researchers found that for the one-third of physically inactive subjects, stroke risk was increased by 20%. Participants who reported vigorous levels of activity were less likely to experience a stroke or mini-stroke. There was a clear correlation between reduced stroke risk and vigorous activity levels in men, but for women, the relationship was not so clear.

Senior study author and UAB professor of epidemiology, Virginia Howard, Ph.D., explained why exercise might mitigate stroke risk, commenting, “The protective effect of intense physical activity may be through its impact on traditional risk factors such as hypertension and diabetes.”  She added that since exercise is a major risk factor for stroke, physicians should put more emphasis on exercise during routine-checkups.

Since this research relied on self-reported data, the amount of exercise required to diminish stroke risk may actually be different than what the researchers found. Additionally, REGARDS did not survey about the type or duration of exercise. Howard suggested that future research should find probe more deeply into the type of exercises that might lessen stroke risk.

This study is published in the American Heart Association journal Stroke. It was supported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

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