Stroke Awareness Month

May is recognized as Stroke Awareness Month. Up to 80% of stroke cases can be prevented through lifestyle changes, and yet it remains the fifth leading cause of death in the United States. Non-fatal strokes can also be tragic and life-altering.  High blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, and obesity are controllable stroke risk factors. You can manage these risks by eating a well-balanced diet, being physically active, maintaining a healthy weight, limiting alcohol intake and not smoking.

Exercise plays an important role in reducing your risk of stroke by lowering high blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels. According to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, adults need 75-150 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity or 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity activity each week. To reap the most benefit, this exercise should be broken up and spread out throughout the week.  There are several easy-to-use methods that can help you identify your ideal intensity.

Remember, balanced exercise programs include both aerobic (cardio) exercise and resistance training.

Lower Blood Pressure

High blood pressure is the leading risk factor of stroke. There is growing evidence that exercise can be a powerful tool in reducing elevated blood pressure. Aerobic exercise is often promoted as the best way to reduce blood pressure, but there is emerging research that suggests resistance training may also be an effective strategy. Don’t worry, you don’t have to become a marathon runner or bodybuilder to see the benefits. One study in sedentary adults found that a 30-minute moderate intensity walk in the morning reduced systolic and diastolic blood pressure by 3.4 and 0.8 mm Hg, respectively, over the course of 8 hours compared to people who did not go on a walk. The effects were even greater when individuals added in 3 minutes of light walking every half hour for 6.5 hours after the morning walk. The average 8-hour blood pressure in that group decreased by 5.1/1.1 mm Hg.

Bottom Line: Too much sitting is not good for blood pressure. Get up and be active as often as possible throughout the day and incorporate planned exercise on most days of the week.

Manage Blood Sugar

Approximately 16% of people with diabetes age 65 or older die of stroke. Many people with diabetes also have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, overweight/obesity, or other conditions that contribute to increased stroke risk. It’s important to manage blood sugar through a healthy lifestyle including nutrition, exercise, and stress management. Physical activity improves blood sugar by building muscle.  Muscle cells help control blood sugar and exercise improves our body’s response to insulin (improved insulin sensitivity).   People with diabetes who are taking insulin or other diabetes medications are at risk for hypoglycemia if insulin dosage and/or carbohydrate intake is not adjusted. Be sure to check your blood sugar before exercise and talk with your doctor prior to starting any new exercise program.

Bottom Line: Exercise naturally reduces blood sugar and makes the body more sensitive to insulin.

Increase HDL (“Good”) Cholesterol

Cholesterol is a fatty substance in the blood. Our bodies need some cholesterol to function properly, but too much can have a negative impact on heart health. Excess cholesterol can start to build up in the arteries, causing them to become stiff and narrow. This makes it hard for blood to flow through and can increase risk of a clot. HDL is called the “good” cholesterol because it cleans out and removes fat build up from the arteries. HDL below 40 mg/dl and 50 mg/dl for men and women, respectively, is considered high risk for heart attack and stroke.  People with the lowest risk maintain HDL levels around 60 mg/dl or greater. While diet and genetics play a significant role in lowering the “bad” (LDL) cholesterol, exercise is an effective way to naturally boost HDL levels.

Bottom Line: Increasing HDL (“good”) cholesterol through exercise can prevent arteries from becoming stiff and clogged.

Long-Term Weight Management

According to the CDC, the only way to maintain weight loss long-term is by engaging in physical activity regularly.   Calorie reduction can result in short-term weight loss but long-term weight maintenance cannot rely solely on diet. Both aerobic exercise and resistance training are effective for weight management. Aim for 30-60 minutes of aerobic exercise 5 days a week in addition to at least 2 resistance training sessions.

Bottom Line: Regular exercise is essential to maintaining weight loss long-term.

Visit the American Stroke Association website to learn more about how you can reduce your risk of stroke and improve your overall heart health.


Next Article: Women’s Health Week, May 2020