19 July 2013

Two men exercising at the gym Breaking a sweat while working out regularly may reduce your risk of stroke, according to University of South Australia researcher Dr Michelle McDonnell.

Published in the American Heart Association journal Stroke this month, Dr McDonnell’s study revealed inactive people are 20 percent more likely to experience a stroke or mini-stroke than those who exercised at moderate to vigorous intensity (enough to break a sweat) at least four times a week.

The study — the first to quantify protective effects of physical activity on stroke in a large multiracial group of men and women in the United States — supports previous findings that physical inactivity is second only to high blood pressure as a risk factor for stroke.

While the study took place in the United States, Dr McDonnell says the results are relevant in Australia, where strokes are the second biggest cause of death nationally. 

“One in six Australians will experience a stroke in their lifetime. Our wide-scale study showed that working out to the point where you are breaking a sweat is directly linked to lower stroke risk,” Dr McDonnell says.

“The stroke-lowering benefits of physical activity are related to its impact on other risk factors. Exercise reduces blood pressure, weight and diabetes. If exercise was a pill, you’d be taking one pill to treat four or five different conditions.

“While we can tell you how much your stroke risk improves for each cigarette you cut out or every point you reduce your blood pressure, we still need good studies on the amount you can reduce your risk of stroke by taking up exercise.”

More than 27,000 Americans, aged 45 years and older were followed for an average of 5.7 years as part of the study which was funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in the US. The participants were sourced from the Reasons for Geographic and Ethnic Differences in Stroke (the REGARDS study) and were divided relatively equally between black and white and male and female.

The study also uncovered a gender disparity with the results showing that among men, only those who exercised at moderate or vigorous intensity four or more times a week had a lowered stroke risk. Dr McDonnell noted this was not the case for women.

“The relationship between stroke and frequency of activity was less clear for women,” Dr McDonnell says.

“The weak relationship with physical activity and women observed in this study may be because women can get the benefit with less vigorous exercise such as walking, which was not the focus of this analysis.”

Dr McDonnell is based at the School of Health Sciences at UniSA. UniSA’s Associate Professor Susan Hillier was co-author of the study, along with researchers from The University of Alabama, Birmingham.

Media Contact

Rosanna Galvin office (08) 8302 0578 mobile 0434 603 457 email rosanna.galvin@unisa.edu.au

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