Vigorous exercise helps a lot when recovering from a stroke. But for stroke survivors who can’t achieve that level of exertion, even a low-intensity workout routine will improve both their mood and the effectiveness of physical therapy, according to a study presented at the Canadian Stroke Congress 2010 in Quebec.

For the study, researchers followed 103 stroke survivors who were receiving standard hospital treatment. Fifty-three of the patients supplemented normal therapy with the experimental Graded Repetitive Arm Supplementary Program (GRASP), a low-impact course of rehabilitative upper-limb exercises.

The researchers found that patients who participated in the GRASP exercise program increased the function of the stroke-affected arm and hand by one third. They also used that arm and hand more often. Plus, they showed fewer symptoms of depression. (These benefits lasted as long as five months after leaving the program.)

For recuperating stroke survivors, depression is a particular problem because it kills their motivation and ability to concentrate, both important to following and maintaining rehabilitation.

“The power of physical activity to raise the spirits of recovering stroke patients is stronger than anyone suspected,” said Jocelyn Harris, PhD, of the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, a coauthor of the study.

Harris pointed out that other studies found that between 25 and 75 percent of patients show signs of depression.

“It’s important to know that depression is treatable,” added Michael Hill, MD, MSc, FRCPC, a spokesman for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. “Patients and caregivers should mention depressive symptoms and seek treatment during follow-up visits with their neurologist, internist or family physician.”

Click here to read about how music can also enhance recovery from a stroke.