How to Improve Movement Recovery after Stroke (Part I)

How to Improve Movement Recovery after Stroke (Part I)

by Dr. Daniel K. Zondervan

Improving Movement Recovery after Stroke

Regaining movement ability after a stroke can be a long and difficult process. Often times, lots of improvements are made in the first few weeks or months, but then progress slows down. This can be a very discouraging time. Fortunately, research has shown that there is hope. Continued rehabilitation exercises are proven to restore lost movement ability even years after a stroke. However, it is important that those exercises are done correctly.

In this article, we will talk about the “Three D’s” of stroke rehabilitation exercises, and the role they play in optimizing your movement recovery after a stroke. But first, it is important to understand what makes stroke rehabilitation exercises different.

Brain vs. Body

When you think about exercising, what images come to mind? People lifting weights in the gym? Joggers going for an early morning run? Or maybe just a brisk walk through the park? These are all great examples of what I will call “Traditional Exercise”. In Traditional Exercise, we work out our body, and then our muscles, heart, and lungs get stronger as a result. These are the exercises we are all familiar with.

Now, if I asked you to think about stroke rehabilitation exercises, what images would come to mind? Chances are, if you haven’t been to an occupational or physical therapist, you won’t really know what to think. If you have, you’ll know that a lot of times, it does not involve the types of heavy lifting or extended exertion that we see in Traditional Exercise. A rehabilitation exercise could include anything from picking up and moving blocks of wood on a table, to simply stretching out your fingers or hand. Some of the most difficult of these “Rehabilitation Exercises” may look nothing like the Traditional Exercises we all know.

The main reason these two types of exercises can be so different, is that Traditional Exercise is primarily focused on training the body, while Rehabilitation Exercise is all about re-training the brain. Because of this, the strategies that work for one type of exercise won’t necessarily be as effective for the other type of exercise. Unfortunately, while there are thousands of websites, magazines, and TV shows that teach us how to do Traditional Exercise better, there isn’t nearly as much information on how to make Rehabilitation Exercise as effective as possible.

Improving recovery after stroke is all about retraining the brain.


Which, of course, brings us to the main point of this article. Below I am going to talk about the “Three D’s” of stroke rehabilitation: Dose, Difficulty, and Drive. I’ll explain how each of these things can improve your recovery, and I’ll give you some tips on how to incorporate them into your own therapy regimen.


The number one most important thing for recovery after stroke is the dose of rehabilitation you perform. Put simply, the more exercises you do, the more you will recover. It sounds like a simple formula, but it can be difficult to put in to practice, especially when your body just doesn’t respond like you want it to. But when it comes to re-training your brain, it is all about patience.

To explain, think back to the example I gave for Traditional Exercise of going to the gym. If you have ever lifted weights, you will know that even after the first day, your muscles will feel sore, and you can tell you worked hard. Now, when you are recovering after a stroke, what is really happening is that the brain is learning new ways to control your muscles. It is almost like a child learning how to walk. You won’t necessarily notice progress right away, because the brain has to try something over and over and over again before the new connections become strong. And just like that child learning to walk may fall down over and over again, if they stick with it, their brain will learn how to put the pieces together.

Again, it is all about patience. Exercise a lot, and keep doing it. The progress will come.


Click here to read Part II of How to Improve Movement Recovery after Stroke!