Why we should exercise a little care before having a work-out

As Andrew Marr talks about his own experience of a stroke triggered by violent exercise, Chris Bond wonders about the risks.

IT was heartening to see Andrew Marr making his first TV appearance at the weekend since suffering a major stroke earlier this year.

Speaking on his own current affairs show, the BBC presenter told viewers that walking was still difficult and his left arm “isn’t much good yet” but that his voice and memory were unimpaired.

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The 53-year-old said he was “lucky to be alive” after what he had been through, blaming his stroke on a combination of overwork and a particularly vigorous session on a rowing machine. “I did the terrible thing of believing what I read in the newspapers, because the newspapers were saying what we must all do is take very intensive exercise, in short bursts, and that’s the way to health.

“Well I went on to a rowing machine and gave it everything I had, and had a strange feeling afterwards – a blinding headache, and flashes of light – served out the family meal, went to bed, woke up the next morning lying on the floor unable to move.”

It turned out that Marr had torn the carotid artery, which takes blood into the brain, and suffered a stroke overnight. People of all ages can, and do, have a stroke although it’s more common in those who are older.

More than 150,000 people are struck down with a stroke in the UK each year and a quarter of those are said to be under the age of 65. But when news first emerged in January that Marr had suffered a stroke there was widespread shock among friends and colleagues that this had happened to somebody so young, fit and energetic.

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The fact that Marr linked what happened to him with an intense rowing machine session has led to people asking whether too much exercise can cause a stroke and what level should be considered safe?

According to the Stroke Association, regular exercise can halve your risk of a stroke and in its fact sheet it points out that half an hour of regular activity five days a week can reduce this risk.

But what about concerns that high-intensity workouts or exercise could actually trigger a stroke? Nikki Hill, The Stroke Association’s deputy director of communications, says this is something that needs further research. 
“Regular exercise is an important factor in stroke prevention and recovery. “We have heard anecdotally that some activities like vigorous exercise can sometimes cause blood vessels to burst.

“We need more research on the underlying factors that might make that happen. We do know that high blood pressure itself is the single biggest cause of stroke, until more research is done on specific triggers we’d suggest getting your blood pressure checked and taking steps to keep it under control, exercise can help with that.”

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We all have different levels of fitness, of course, and someone who likes running half marathons is going to do a more rigorous workout than a person who likes to go for a weekend stroll in their local park. But before someone starts doing exercise, especially if they have a pre-exisitng medical condition or haven’t done anything for a while, they’re advised to speak to their GP first.

Julia MacCleod, head of operations for the Stroke Association in Yorkshire and Humber, says there are other things that people can do to reduce the risk of having a stroke. “Stopping smoking, eating a healthier diet and reducing blood pressure, as well as regular exercise, these are all things that help reduce the risk,” she says.

However, although around 40 per cent of strokes are preventable the flip side is that the other 60 per cent aren’t, which is a sobering thought.

Despite such concerns it’s worth noting that death rates from strokes in the UK have halved over the last 20 years. “Treatment of strokes is much better and if it’s identified quickly enough then the chances of making a good recovery are much better,” says MacLeod.

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Nevertheless, stroke is the fourth biggest cause of death in the UK, with one in five proving fatal. While for those who survive it can have long term consequences.

“Stroke is no respecter of people and at the moment over 150,000 people have strokes in the UK each year, that’s one person every five minutes. More than half of stroke survivors are left dependent on others for some kind of care for the rest of their lives and it’s one of the biggest causes of long term disability in our communities.”

For more information visit www.stroke.org.uk or to find out about stroke services in Yorkshire, call (0113) 2019 780