Researchers at the University of Maryland and Baltimore Veterans Affairs Medical Center found that treadmill exercises improved the walking ability of stroke survivors by rewiring parts of the brains. In their study, they showed that treadmill exercises had more benefits on after-stroke walking and overall fitness than the traditional stretching exercises.

In their study, the researchers did a comparison of 37 patients who performed "progressive task repetitive treadmill therapy" with 34 patients who did the stretching. All the patients suffered from chronic hemiparesis, weakness on one side of the body at least six months after the stroke. The patients all underwent conventional rehabilitation first.

The treadmill group was assigned with three 40-minute sessions per week on the treadmill at 60% of their heart rate reserve. They were adding duration and intensity every two weeks in the exercise program that lasted for six months.

The stretching group had the same number and length of sessions and were performing a variety of traditional stretches on a raised mat table with the assistance of an instructor.

The results were measured in three ways: by looking at brain activity on MRIs, by measuring walking ability, and by evaluating overall fitness level.

The treadmill group performed better in all three categories. Imaging tests have shown that these participants increased their activity in certain parts of the brain by 72% while there were no changes in the brain activities in patients who did the stretching exercises.

The MRIs showed increased blood oxygenation and flow in the brain stem and cerebellum of the stroke survivors from the treadmill group when performing knee-flexing exercises that mimicked walking but not in those who did the stretching.

These results indicate that the cerebellum and brain stem had been "recruited" to replace some of the walking functions of the cortical brain that had been damaged by the strokes.

Additionally, patients from the treadmill group also increased their walking speed and their fitness.

After such stunning results to stimulate new or underused brain circuits and improve walking, the researchers believe that the treadmill exercises should be included in long-term therapy programs for stroke survivors.