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Physical activity: Free medicine for stroke prevention

Karen Miller
Physical activity: Free medicine for stroke prevention

Physical activity is often referred to as medicine that costs nothing and has few, if any, side effects. It seems to be a panacea to avoid a lengthy list of illnesses.

You can include stroke in that list.

But its impact on stroke is somewhat indirect. Actually, stroke is more of a “silent” beneficiary. That’s because it is highly linked to several risk factors that directly benefit from physical activity, which in turn, have a trickle-down effect. Stroke is on the receiving end.

High blood pressure

High on the list is elevated blood pressure. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends a desirable level less than 120/80 mm Hg. When untreated, high blood pressure is associated with 54 percent of episodes of strokes worldwide. But, according to the Mayo Clinic, being more active can lower one’s systolic blood pressure — the top number — by an average of 4 to 9 millimeters. That’s equivalent to the effect of some blood pressure medications.

Type 2 diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is another linked health condition. People who have diabetes have a 1.5 times greater chance of having a stroke compared to those who don’t, according to the American Diabetes Association. Diabetes is characterized by high blood glucose levels. That’s not a good thing. When glucose, or sugar, remains in the blood over extended periods of time, it can damage blood vessels, which can cause the development of a clot. It’s these blood clots that impede the flow of blood to the brain, resulting in a stroke.

The body has a remedy, however. The pancreas secretes a hormone called insulin which controls levels of sugar in the blood. Physical activity functions as an ally and makes the body more sensitive to insulin.


  • According to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans
        • At least 150 minutes each week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity


        • 75 minutes each week of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity


        • An equivalent combination of both


        • Muscle strengthening activities 2 or more days a week

    Examples of moderate-intensity activities

        • Walking (3 miles per hour or faster)
        • Bicycling (slower than 10 miles per hour)
        • General gardening
        • Dancing
        • Light house cleaning

    Examples of vigorous-intensity activities

      • Jogging, running, race walking
      • Swimming laps
      • Jumping rope
      • Bicycling 10 miles per hour or faster
      • Most competitive sports

Cholesterol/heart disease

Cholesterol is a fatty substance that has a bad reputation, but is actually essential to one’s health. It forms the membranes surrounding cells and helps make hormones and vitamin D. But there can be too much of a good thing. Sometimes it clogs the arteries and prevents the blood from flowing freely.

People tend to confuse heart attacks with strokes. That’s understandable. Actually, they are quite similar because they share the underlying cause. If cholesterol obstructs an artery in the heart, you can have a heart attack. If it obstructs an artery feeding the brain, you have a brain attack, or a stroke. Same disease — just different organs. That’s why people who have had a heart attack have more than twice the risk of stroke, according to the AHA. Any artery can be a victim of high cholesterol.

Research has discovered, however, that moderate regular physical activity can raise the level of a type of cholesterol called high-density cholesterol (HDL). A level of at least 40 is preferred. The role of HDL is to carry excess cholesterol back to the liver for removal from the body. This keeps the amount of cholesterol in check.

Weight control

Excess pounds strain the entire circulatory system. But losing as little as 5 to 10 percent of your weight can lower your blood pressure and other stroke risk factors.

Up and at ‘em

It is clear that regular physical activity is a solution to a multitude of health conditions. The good news is that there is no set pattern to follow. Just move for at least 150 minutes a week. You can break the activities into 10 to 15 minute intervals. Most activities apply — a walk around the block, house cleaning, gardening, dancing. They all count.

And stroke prevention comes along for the ride.


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