Certain exercises can help people regain mobility, improve cognitive function, improve balance, regain muscle mass, and reduce stress after a stroke. These exercises can focus on the legs, arms, shoulders, core, and more.

Exercise is a key component of the stroke recovery process. Someone can usually begin low intensity exercise — with caution, supports, or assistance — within 24 hours of experiencing a stroke.

This article discusses the benefits of exercise for stroke recovery, as well as specific exercises that aid in stroke recovery.

After a person has had a stroke, stretching exercises can help prevent:

  • joint stiffness
  • muscle shortening
  • spasticity

The following exercises can help stroke recovery for the legs.

Calf stretch

A GIF of calf stretch
  1. Stand next to a stable chair or flat wall.
  2. Place the hands on the top of the chair or a similar height up the wall.
  3. Bend the body to create a triangle and step one leg back, straightening the leg as much as comfortable until feeling a stretch in the calf. Ensure that the toe is facing straight forward.
  4. Hold this position for 1 minute or as long as comfortable, and then repeat this exercise using the opposite leg.
  5. If it is too painful to keep the heel flat and touching the ground during this exercise, keep it raised and gradually attempt to lower it during subsequent repetitions.

Mini squats with support

A GIF of mini squats with support
  1. Stand facing the back of a chair and grasp either side of the top of the chair.
  2. Slowly bend the knees, as if sitting down in a chair, as far as feels comfortable (keep the knees, hips, and feet in line, and distribute body weight equally over both legs).
  3. Push up through the feet, straightening the knees and spine until returning to the starting position.
  4. Repeat this exercise 15–20 times.

Side lying hip flexion

A GIF of side lying hip flexion
  1. Lie on the unaffected side of the body with the head resting on a bent arm. Ensure the hips are level and the hips, legs, and feet are in line.
  2. Slowly raise and bend the affected leg inward toward the chest or belly, and then straighten it back to the starting position.
  3. Repeat this exercise 15–20 times or until the leg muscles become fatigued.

Standing hip abduction with support

  1. Stand facing a countertop or a hard, flat surface such as a tabletop.
  2. Place the hands on top of the countertop or tabletop for support.
  3. Gently move the leg out to the side with the leg straight and the foot pointing forward.

Practicing exercises that strengthen the core promotes good balance, reduces the risk of falls and injury, and helps make everyday activities such as walking easier.

Examples include:

Sitting trunk rotations

  1. Sit in a chair with the back straight and shoulders up and back.
  2. Interlace the fingers.
  3. Move the hands toward the left foot.
  4. Reach the hands up and across the body diagonally and raise the hands above the right side of the head, reaching as far as comfortable.
  5. Try to keep the elbows straight during this entire exercise, and make sure your trunk and eyes follow the hands while they move.
  6. Repeat this exercise 8–10 times on the left side, and then repeat it 8–10 times on the right side of the body.

Dynamic weight shifts

  1. Sit upright in a chair. For increased difficulty, try sitting on an unsteady surface such as a yoga ball.
  2. Shift the chest and upper body to one side, while shifting the pelvis to the opposite side.
  3. When shifting the chest, ensure that the side being shifted toward elongates and the opposite side shortens.
  4. Repeat this exercise 10–20 times.

Quadruped weight shifts

  1. Get on the hands and knees on a hard, flat surface with arms straight and shoulder-width apart and knees hip-width apart.
  2. Rock the body weight back diagonally with the right hip, and then shift the body weight onto the right arm.
  3. Return to the starting position, and then repeat on the left side.
  4. Repeat this exercise 10–15 times.

Learn more about stroke rehabilitation.

Some exercises can help strengthen the shoulders and the arms or improve their mobility.

Examples include:

Shoulder horizontal range of motion

  1. Lie flat on the back on a hard, flat surface.
  2. Place the affected arm on the ground beside the body with the elbow bent so the forearm stands up.
  3. Reach the unaffected arm across the body to meet the affected arm and interlock the fingers of both hands.
  4. Using the unaffected arm, pull the affected arm across the body toward the side of the unaffected arm as far as comfortable. If the arm or shoulder becomes painful, stop immediately.
  5. Repeat this exercise 10–15 times.

Resisted supine diagonal shoulder flexion

  1. Get a resistance band.
  2. Lie down with both hands resting near the hip on the ground on the unaffected side of the body.
  3. Holding an end of the resistance band with each hand, slowly raise the affected arm up and across the body, aiming for the ground above the head. Ensure the elbow is not bent and completely straight the whole time.
  4. Repeat this exercise 15–20 times.

Scapular protraction

  1. Lay flat on the back on a hard, flat surface.
  2. Slowly lift and straighten the affected arm until it is perpendicular to the body.
  3. Make a fist with your hands and punch upward, lifting the shoulder blade off the ground slightly.
  4. Repeat step 3 until the arm or shoulder muscles become fatigued, and then gently lower the arm until it reaches the ground.
  5. Rest the arm and shoulder until they are no longer fatigued, and then repeat step 3.

Learn about the possible long-term effects of stroke.

Some exercises can help target and strengthen the muscles in the wrists, hands, and fingers.

Examples include:

Crumpling a piece of paper

  1. Sit with the arms supported on a hard surface, such as a table, and put a piece of paper down on the table.
  2. Pick up the piece of paper with both hands and begin to crumple it using both hands equally.
  3. When crumpling the paper, ensure that the shoulder does not bend or lean forward and instead stays straight and back.
  4. Slowly uncrumple the paper making sure the shoulder blades are down and back.
  5. Repeat this exercise 10–15 times or until the hands become too fatigued.

Supported and unsupported reaching and grasping

  1. Sit with the affected arm lying flat on a hard surface, such as a table, with the shoulders up and back.
  2. Reach the affected arm straight outward, as if trying to reach an object, and extend the fingers as much as comfortable.
  3. Grasp the fingers together, making a fist, and then draw the affected arm back toward the body in a straight line, bending the elbow.
  4. Repeat this exercise 20 times or until the hand or arm muscles become too fatigued.

Learn about recovering communication skills after a stroke.

A person should take all medications and follow treatment plans exactly as a doctor has ordered.

Having a stroke can raise a person’s risk of another stroke. Tips for people recovering from a stroke to prevent having another include:

  • quitting smoking or not starting
  • maintaining a moderate body weight
  • lowering or controlling cholesterol levels
  • lowering or controlling high blood pressure
  • treating or managing diabetes and high blood sugar
  • eating a healthy, balanced diet
  • staying well hydrated
  • getting enough rest, ideally 7–9 hours per day
  • managing or reducing stress
  • getting tested for heart disease or treating heart disease

Learn about the different stages of stroke recovery.

Exercise is a crucial component of the stroke recovery process. Practicing certain exercises designed to target specific body parts can help someone regain abilities or functions that have been impaired by a stroke.

Before engaging in any type of exercise following a stroke, be sure to get advice from a physician or physical therapist. People who are still unsteady should get help performing exercises from a caregiver or therapist. If any exercise becomes painful or too difficult, stop immediately.