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Exercise after stroke: Move your body!

August 21, 2013 11:30 pm

Get moving ASAP, when doctors give the green light after stroke

Drew Podgorski at Walk the Line to SCI  Recovery


A stroke knocks you on your ass. For Drew, it took out the entire right side of his body. He went from playing shows and riding his lowrider “Whoopie Goldbike” to wondering if he would ever take a step again (He did, and much, much more).

I remember one of the first tests the doctors performed on Drew when trying to diagnose him in the ER. They asked him to touch his right hand to his nose. His hand just toppled onto the middle of his face. His coordination and fine motor skills were gone. It was so surreal.

We didn’t know that Drew had endured a stroke until three weeks into our stay at the hospital. For that first week, he laid in bed while undergoing countless MRIs, MRAs and other tests.

We also didn’t know that week of not moving was time ticking away. Yes, he was healing from a life-threatening spinal stroke and doctors didn’t yet have a diagnosis. But with stroke survivors, one of the most important things you can do is get them moving as soon as possible.

This is because the first minutes, days and months following a stroke are crucial to regaining function through therapy and movement. The brain literally needs to re-teach the body how to move. And the sooner it gets started, the better.

The book, “The Brain That Changes Itself” by Dr. Norman Doidge, tackles this subject in an understandable and inspiring way. Dr. Doidge touts “neuroplasticity,” which is the ability of the brain to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections. For more info, take a look at my recent blog on neuroplasticity and how it relates to stroke survivors.

In regards to stroke, Neuroplasticity means the brain can make new pathways and send signals around the damaged tissue, so the body can start to move and function again. This happened to Drew. And it’s still happening. Just last week (more than two years post stroke), he showed me how his pinky finger is able to move just a tad more than it did a month ago.

It might seem like a miracle, but it’s really not.  It all starts with movement, which kicks neuroplasticity into gear. The more Drew moves, the more function he gets back. Scientists and doctors say positive thinking plays a role in neuroplasticity as well.

Although it may seem initially scary to move after a stroke, it’s imperative to get moving as soon as doctors give you the green light.

It starts with baby steps, no pun intended. Drew couldn’t even sit up on his own at first. He would wobble from side to side and sometimes fall back. To start to learn how to hold himself up once again, he had to sit strapped in a chair – a scary looking one with lots of padding. But  now he can do sit ups. Lots of them.

And the glorious first steps. They were also pretty shaky and unstable. It took three people surrounding him, a cumbersome, robotic looking thigh-high leg brace (AFO) and balance bars. But they were exactly that, the first steps of many more he will take throughout his life.

Myth buster: You only have up to one year to regain function after a stroke. This is an intimidating, incorrect and an outdated theory. Because of neuroplasticity, a stroke survivor can regain movement and function one year, five years, 10 years, and a lifetime after having a stroke.  This is according to “The Brain that Changes Itself,” Drew’s neurologist and seeing it come to fruition in real life. Regaining function is tedious, and takes constant therapy and dedication. Sometimes progress is fast and large; sometimes it’s slow and small. But progress after a stroke will happen.

Drew rides his bike again now. This one is a trike called “Tracy,” a low-rider trike. He also can play his guitar again, and even better due to his challenges. Those are just a couple of quick examples of his favorite yet therapeutic activities.

Here are some of the physical activities he does to keep moving and keep working toward getting his hand, arm and leg to better function:


  • Medical yoga.
  • Elliptical.
  • Free weights.
  • Bike riding Tracy.
  • Good old fashioned walking.


  • Play guitar.
  • Play keyboard.
  • Nails: Take nails and put them in a pill bottle one by one, then take them out.
  • Play Doh – play with it.
  • That device that you squeeze with rubber bands to strengthen your grip.
  • SaeboFlex to open the hand.
  • Legos – play with them.
  • Sketch pad – draw and color.

This was also a hopeful story that was discussed in The Brain That Changes itself:

Norman Doidge references a stroke survivor who was completely paralyzed and couldn’t speak. This man was elderly. His brother worked with him every day on cognition and PT, even starting with having him crawl like a baby. The man miraculously got back nearly 100% of what he lost. There is truth to the book and the theory of neuroplasticity. I’ve seen it in Drew’s hard work and healing.

Related information: 

Healing tips from Beaumont Hospital’s head PT and OT


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