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Aerobic exercise may speed up recovery from a concussion, study suggests

Rather than strictly resting, experts recommend that young athletes stay physically active after a head injury

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A new study conducted by researchers from the University of Buffalo explored one way that young athletes can optimize their recovery time after a concussion. According to their findings, starting an aerobic exercise routine within 10 days of a head injury can help reduce symptoms by nearly 50%. 

“The study clearly demonstrates that strict physical rest until symptoms spontaneously resolve is no longer an acceptable way to treat sport-related concussions in adolescents,” said Dr. John J. Leddy. “Our findings show that to accelerate recovery and reduce the risk of delayed recovery, physicians should not only permit, but they should consider prescribing sub-symptom threshold physical activity early after sport-related concussion.” 

The benefits of aerobic exercise

Nearly 120 athletes between the ages of 13 and 18 who had sustained a concussion playing a sport were involved in the study. One group was told to do stretching exercises for at least 20 minutes a day for four weeks; another group wore heart monitors and completed the Buffalo Concussion Treadmill Test, which has participants walk on a treadmill with increasing speed and incline. 

“Since we know that regular aerobic exercise is good for brain health, the goal was to use sub-symptom threshold exercise to see if it could help the concussed brain recover,” explained Dr. Leddy. 

The researchers learned that consistently exercising within the first 10 days of a concussion can speed up the recovery process. Participants who only stretched following their head trauma fully recovered in just under three weeks; however, those who were on the treadmill every day recovered in two weeks.

The researchers explained that there are several brain benefits associated with regular aerobic exercise, including better blood flow and cognitive function. Following a concussion, they say this type of exercise can also help repair neuron damage. 

“What we discovered is that participants were quite diligent in following their prescription, and further, that those who followed the prescription or may have even exceeded the exercise prescription of 20 minutes per day recovered much faster than those that did not follow the prescription,” said researcher Barry S. Willer, Ph.D. “This finding is important because delayed recovery comes with substantial cost to adolescents, including academic difficulties, risk for depression, and reduced quality of life.” 

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