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Leisure activities like walking the dog or gardening can help decrease stroke risk.RealPeopleGroup/Getty Images
  • Researchers found that even those who did small amounts of exercise showed significant reductions in stroke risk.
  • The research underscores the importance that “some physical activity is better than none.”
  • More physical activity still yields more benefits, but experts say every bit helps.

Even low amounts of physical activity per day can significantly improve stroke risk.

While most fitness guidelines focus on an ideal amount of physical activity per day for good health, a new study indicates that even low levels of physical activity are an improvement over doing nothing at all.

The findings also align with the World Health Organization’s 2020 guidelines on physical activity, which emphasize the message: “some physical activity is better than none.”

“[The study] seems to be in line with other research that’s been published recently that shows that even low levels of physical activity can have tremendous benefits in terms of overall health and affecting mortality,” Dr. Michael Fredericson, Director of the PM&R Sports Medicine and co-director of the Stanford Center on Longevity at Stanford Medicine. He wasn’t affiliated with the research.

In the study, published March 5 in BMJ Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, scientists performed a meta-analysis on 15 study articles after reviewing more than 3,000 studies on “leisure-time physical activity,” a catch-all term for any kind of physical activity, no matter the intensity. It encompasses a range of activities from gardening and walking to hiking, biking, and weightlifting.

“We performed a comprehensive meta-analysis of studies including the general population to assess the risk of stroke associated with different levels of leisure-time physical activity. Our most significant result was that even a small amount of physical activity can decrease the risk of stroke,” Dr. Raffaele Ornello, MD, Phd, a neurologist and researcher at the University of L’Aquila, in Italy, and author of the study, told Healthline.

An inactive or sedentary lifestyle is an established risk factor for many chronic diseases, including obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and stroke. While that is well known, just how much physical activity someone needs to see health benefits isn’t as clear. In fact, the study points out that there isn’t even a consensus about the minimum amount of physical activity to decrease risk of stroke.

So, in a world where only one-in-four US adults meet physical activity guidelines, it’s understandable why researchers would want to know what the effects of doing even the bare minimum amount of exercise are on serious outcomes like stroke.

But they’ve picked up a clear signal from across 15 previously published articles that even minimal amounts of physical activity improved the risk of stroke, independent of age and sex.

Compared to individuals who did no leisure-time physical activity whatsoever, those who did even small amounts reduced their risk of stroke by between roughly 10-30%.

The study also found confirmatory results when looking at specific kinds of stroke outcomes. For ischemic stroke, the most common type of stroke, which is caused by an obstruction in a vessel supplying blood to the brain, individuals who demonstrated low levels of physical activity had a 13% reduction in risk compared to those with none.

Results were similar for hemorrhagic stroke, a less common form of stroke that occurs when a blood vessel bursts and begins to bleed in the brain. In this case, low levels of physical activity resulted in a 16% risk reduction compared to no physical activity.

Part of the difficulty of assessing the health benefits of physical activity is its subjective nature: what is “moderate” for one person could be “intense” for another. So, when the researchers set out to do their review, they found differences in how prior studies categorized levels of exercise.

In total, 15 studies were included, which included more than 750,000 individuals, with an average follow-up time of 10 years.

Five of the studies used three levels to categorize physical activity (“none,” “below target,” and “ideal”); six studies used four (“none,” “low,” “moderate,” and “intense”); and two studies used five levels (“none,” “insufficient,” “low,” “moderate,” and “intense”).

But no matter how many categories the studies used or how they defined low levels of exercise, all showed a benefit compared to “none.”

Of course, high levels of physical activity tended to show more benefit as well. Individuals who had “moderate” levels of physical activity had a reduction in stroke risk of about 33%.

Interestingly, when individuals exercised at the highest level, “intense,” benefits seemed to diminish compared to more moderate exercise. In two of the studies, an “intense” showed only a 2% improvement compared to doing no exercise at all.

“There is some concern that these really high levels of exercise are probably not adding to your longevity and in fact could put you at risk for some cardiac issues,” said Fredericson.

The CDC recommends that adults need 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity and 2 days of muscle-strengthening activity per week. However, it doesn’t have to be done all at once. In fact, breaking up your physical activity into smaller, more manageable chunks is totally acceptable.

Also, physical activity doesn’t mean you have to be putting hours into the gym or doing otherwise strenuous activity. If you enjoy gardening or working outside, that counts. If you walk your dog or spend time stretching in the evening, that does too.

And of course, if you’re motivated to get to jog, lift weights, or play sports, those are other great ways to get in physical activity.

“Even subjects with limited physical capabilities, who can only engage in limited amounts of physical activity, can experience its benefits. So, our main message is to encourage exercise. Even small amounts can make a difference for vascular prevention,” said Ornello.

Finding accessible ways to fit physical activity into your day is more important than the particular type of activity you’re doing.

“It’s really just about keeping people active,” said Fredericson.

“Let’s say you have a knee injury, then maybe you can get in the pool or you can do upper body weightlifting. If you can’t run, maybe you can get on your stationary bike. There’s almost always something you can do,” he said.

Even small amounts of physical activity can significantly improve your risk of stroke, according to a new study.

The more active you are, the better the health effects, but the study indicates that some is better than none at all.

Physical activity includes anything from gardening to jogging to weight lifting, so there are options for people of all ages and fitness levels to engage in.