Physical fitness training for stroke survivors

Review question
We reviewed the evidence that examines whether physical fitness training is beneficial for health and function in people who have had a stroke.

Physical fitness is important to allow people to carry out everyday activities such as walking and climbing stairs. Physical fitness varies among everyone. For example, fitness in men tends to be a little higher than in women and everyone's fitness declines as we get older and if we become less physically active. In particular, in stroke survivors' physical fitness is often low. This may limit their ability to perform everyday activities and also worsen stroke-related disability. For this reason fitness training has been proposed as a beneficial approach for people with stroke. However, taking part in fitness training could have a range of other benefits important to people with stroke such as improving cognitive function (thinking skills), improving mood, and quality of life, and it could reduce the chance of having another stroke.

Study characteristics
In July 2018 we identified 75 studies for inclusion in the review. The studies involved a total of 3617 participants at all stages of care including being in hospital or back living at home. Most of the people who took part were able to walk on their own. The studies tested different forms of fitness training; these included cardiorespiratory or 'endurance' training, resistance or 'strength' training, or mixed training, which is a combination of cardiorespiratory plus resistance training.

Key results
We found that cardiorespiratory fitness training, particularly involving walking, can improve fitness, balance and walking after stroke. The improvements in cardiorespiratory fitness may reduce the chance of stroke hospitalisation by 7%. Mixed training improves walking ability and improves balance. Strength training may have a role in improving balance. So, overall it seems likely that people with stroke are likely to benefit the most from training that involves cardiorespiratory training and that involves some walking. However, there was not enough information to draw reliable conclusions about the impact of fitness training on other areas such as quality of life, mood, or cognitive function. Cognitive function is under-investigated despite being a key outcome of interest for stroke survivors. There was no evidence that any of the different types of fitness training caused injuries or other health problems; exercise appears to be safe. We need more studies to examine the benefits that are most important to stroke survivors, in particular for those with more severe stroke who may be unable to walk.

Quality of the evidence
Studies of fitness training can be difficult to carry out. We have the highest confidence in the estimates of benefit from cardiorespiratory training (moderate/high). The evidence for other training types is moderate to low. However, some consistent findings emerged with different studies all tending to show similar effects in different groups of participants.

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.

Read the full abstract...

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.


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 strategy: 

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.