Have you ever tried moving your arms in a different pattern than your legs while walking? It’s not easy to do because of the inherent connection between the way arms and legs move. The coupling of limb movements is due to the complex wiring your nervous system uses to send signals from your brain to your body. Given this known link between the rhythm of arm and leg movements, some have wondered if exercising with your arms, in this case in the form of pedaling, could translate to improvements in the function of your legs.
Researchers from Canada set out to answer this question. They recruited 19 chronic stroke patients between the ages of 57 and 87 years old. Their strokes had occurred as recently as seven months ago but dated back as far as seventeen years. The patients were asked to train on an exercise machine without foot pedals. This practice prompted them to achieve a rhythm of one revolution per second cycling with only their arms. Training sessions were 30 minutes, three times a week for five weeks. The intensity of training was gradually increased over time while maintaining a target heart rate between 50-70% of the patients’ maximum. Before and after the training program, patients performed several tests to assess the speed and distance they were able to walk as well as their balance.
Arm training can improve leg function
Results confirmed the researchers’ suspicion that exercising with your arms can strengthen your leg function. Approximately half of the patients experienced meaningful improvement in the distance or speed they were able to walk at the end of the five weeks. On average, patients were able to walk 266 meters in six minutes following the training. This distance was 8.5% further than they were able to initially. A smaller portion, five of eighteen patients improved their balance due to the arm training.
As we well know, the best approach to rehabilitation can be different for everyone. In this study, one 65-year-old patient whose stroke was seven years ago improved dramatically. He was able to walk an incredible 91.5 meters further in six minutes after the arm training! Even years after a stroke, it appears arm cycling may help you improve your walking speed. Although the arm trainer used in this study is quite expensive, there are many affordable options available online that can do the job just as well.
Lead author of the study is Dr. Kaupp from the Rehabilitation Neuroscience Laboratory, University of Victoria, Canada.