Physical fitness training for stroke patients

Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2020 Mar 20;3(3):CD003316. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD003316.pub7.


Background: Levels of physical activity and physical fitness are low after stroke. Interventions to increase physical fitness could reduce mortality and reduce disability through increased function.

Objectives: The primary objectives of this updated review were to determine whether fitness training after stroke reduces death, death or dependence, and disability. The secondary objectives were to determine the effects of training on adverse events, risk factors, physical fitness, mobility, physical function, health status and quality of life, mood, and cognitive function.

Search methods: In July 2018 we searched the Cochrane Stroke Trials Register, CENTRAL, MEDLINE, Embase, CINAHL, SPORTDiscus, PsycINFO, and four additional databases. We also searched ongoing trials registers and conference proceedings, screened reference lists, and contacted experts in the field.

Selection criteria: Randomised trials comparing either cardiorespiratory training or resistance training, or both (mixed training), with usual care, no intervention, or a non-exercise intervention in stroke survivors.

Data collection and analysis: Two review authors independently selected studies, assessed quality and risk of bias, and extracted data. We analysed data using random-effects meta-analyses and assessed the quality of the evidence using the GRADE approach. Diverse outcome measures limited the intended analyses.

Main results: We included 75 studies, involving 3017 mostly ambulatory participants, which comprised cardiorespiratory (32 studies, 1631 participants), resistance (20 studies, 779 participants), and mixed training interventions (23 studies, 1207 participants). Death was not influenced by any intervention; risk differences were all 0.00 (low-certainty evidence). There were few deaths overall (19/3017 at end of intervention and 19/1469 at end of follow-up). None of the studies assessed death or dependence as a composite outcome. Disability scores were improved at end of intervention by cardiorespiratory training (standardised mean difference (SMD) 0.52, 95% CI 0.19 to 0.84; 8 studies, 462 participants; P = 0.002; moderate-certainty evidence) and mixed training (SMD 0.23, 95% CI 0.03 to 0.42; 9 studies, 604 participants; P = 0.02; low-certainty evidence). There were too few data to assess the effects of resistance training on disability. Secondary outcomes showed multiple benefits for physical fitness (VO2 peak and strength), mobility (walking speed) and physical function (balance). These physical effects tended to be intervention-specific with the evidence mostly low or moderate certainty. Risk factor data were limited or showed no effects apart from cardiorespiratory fitness (VO2 peak), which increased after cardiorespiratory training (mean difference (MD) 3.40 mL/kg/min, 95% CI 2.98 to 3.83; 9 studies, 438 participants; moderate-certainty evidence). There was no evidence of any serious adverse events. Lack of data prevents conclusions about effects of training on mood, quality of life, and cognition. Lack of data also meant benefits at follow-up (i.e. after training had stopped) were unclear but some mobility benefits did persist. Risk of bias varied across studies but imbalanced amounts of exposure in control and intervention groups was a common issue affecting many comparisons.

Authors' conclusions: Few deaths overall suggest exercise is a safe intervention but means we cannot determine whether exercise reduces mortality or the chance of death or dependency. Cardiorespiratory training and, to a lesser extent mixed training, reduce disability during or after usual stroke care; this could be mediated by improved mobility and balance. There is sufficient evidence to incorporate cardiorespiratory and mixed training, involving walking, within post-stroke rehabilitation programmes to improve fitness, balance and the speed and capacity of walking. The magnitude of VO2 peak increase after cardiorespiratory training has been suggested to reduce risk of stroke hospitalisation by ˜7%. Cognitive function is under-investigated despite being a key outcome of interest for patients. Further well-designed randomised trials are needed to determine the optimal exercise prescription, the range of benefits and any long-term benefits.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Activities of Daily Living
  • Exercise Therapy / methods*
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • Muscle Strength
  • Oxygen Consumption
  • Physical Fitness*
  • Physical Functional Performance
  • Postural Balance
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Resistance Training
  • Stroke / mortality
  • Stroke Rehabilitation*
  • Survivors
  • Walking / physiology*
  • Walking Speed / physiology