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Understanding Active vs Passive Exercises to Customize Rehabilitation to Your Ability Level

physiotherapist helping patient with stretching passive and active exercises

Knowing the difference between active and passive exercise can help you understand what your rehabilitation process will encompass.

In this article, you’ll learn the difference between active and passive exercise, who should use them, and how they can benefit your rehabilitation program.

What Are Passive Exercises?

Passive exercises are also known as passive range of motion (ROM) exercises; and your range of motion includes how far you can move your joints in different directions. These exercises are considered passive because you don’t exert any effort. Instead, someone helps you move your muscles and joints through their full range of motion for you.

Who Can Benefit from Passive Exercises?

Passive range of motion exercises are great for patients with hemiplegia (paralysis on one side of the body) or spasticity (stiff, tight muscles after neurological injury).

When you cannot move your limbs on your own, passive exercise allows a therapist or caregiver to move your body for you. Although passive exercise does not require effort on your behalf, the movement still carries many benefits.

For instance, movement improves blood flow in the affected areas, which might be stagnant otherwise. Passive stretching also helps prevent spasticity from worsening.

Passive exercises provide the best benefits when they are used consistently over a long period of time. Consistent repetition of therapeutic movements helps spark neuroplasticity: the mechanism the brain uses to rewire itself.

However, in order for passive exercise to induce neuroplasticity, attention must be paid to the movement. Passive exercise won’t be helpful if done while distracted. Patients must focus on the passive movements in order to benefit from it.

What Are Active Exercises?

Active exercises involve your physical effort exerted into muscular activity.

These exercises can include active range of motion, like self-stretching, or general stroke rehabilitation exercises where you move your muscles through therapeutic movements.

When you’re doing the exercises yourself, it’s active exercise.

Movement difficulties occur after neurological injury because the brain cannot send the correct signals to the affected muscles. Rehabilitation exercise encourages the brain to rewire itself through neuroplasticity, which improves its ability to send signals to your muscles.

Neuroplasticity occurs with both passive and active exercise, but more with active exercise. On top of that benefit, active exercise also helps with muscle strengthening. This is particularly helpful if any muscle atrophy has occurred from less daily activity.

Bonus: Download our free Stroke Rehab Exercises ebook. (Link will open a pop-up that will not interrupt your reading.)

Who Can Benefit from Active Exercises?

Patients that struggle with hemiparesis (weakness on one side of the body) can benefit from active exercise. As long as the person has some control over their muscles (even if the control is not great), they can benefit from active exercises.

When mobility is limited and restricted by conditions like spasticity, passive exercises can be done before active exercise. This helps warm up the muscles and prepare them for active use.

Patients that have relatively good control over their affected side, but wish to regain even more mobility, can usually begin with active exercises. However, ask your physical therapist what’s right for you. Usually, range-of-motion exercises are encouraged regardless of mobility level.

Just like passive exercise, active exercise benefits patients by stimulating neuroplasticity. Frequently practicing active rehab exercises will provide the brain with the stimulation it needs to rewire itself.

Exercises to Get You Started

Now that you know the difference between active and passive exercise, do you feel like your rehabilitation regimen is properly adapted to your ability level?

If yes, that’s great! If not, then talk with your therapist. Ask her to adjust your current exercises or recommend new ones. Many therapists are eager to get patients exercising at home, because that’s when the best results are achieved.

To help with this, at-home rehab exercise devices like FitMi home therapy help motivate patients to exercise at home. This device is therapist-approved because it adapts to your ability level, where patients can practice both passive or active exercises.

Rehab devices have higher compliance rates than written sheets of exercise, which means that patients see better results with motivating equipment. However, some patients wish to start small with written sheets.

To help you get started, here are some free exercise guides from our rehabilitation blog:

Passive Exercise Guides:

Active Exercise Guides:

Pick beneficial exercises and practice them consistently in order to see the best results. If you’re concerned about picking the right exercises for you, be sure to ask your therapist for recommendations.

We hope this article helps you on the road to recovery.

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See how Susan is recovering from post-stroke paralysis

“I had a stroke five years ago causing paralysis on my left side which remains today.

I recently began using FitMi.

At first it was difficult for me to be successful with a few of the exercises but the more I use it, the better my scores become.

I have recently had some movement in my left arm that I did not have before.

I don’t know if I can directly relate this to the use of the FitMi but I am not having occupational therapy so I conclude that it must be benefiting me.

The therapy modality motivates me to use it daily and challenges me to compete against my earlier scores.

I heartily recommend it!-Susan, stroke survivor

FitMi is our best-selling home therapy tool because it helps patients of all ability levels.

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