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Aerobic exercise speeds concussion recovery in young athletes, study finds

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A supervised programme of aerobic exercise helps young people recover from a sport-related concussion, according to new research published in JAMA Pediatrics.

The findings challenge the conventional approach to concussion, which often consists of almost complete rest, eliminating most physical and mental activities.

An editorial in the journal called it a “landmark study”.

University of Buffalo researchers and colleagues saw 103 young athletes within 10 days of sustaining a sport-related concussion.

The participants, all aged between 13 and 18, were randomly assigned to do sub-symptom threshold aerobic exercise or placebo-like stretching exercises. Sub-symptom threshold exercise is physical activity that doesn’t exacerbate symptoms. In the study, it included walking on a treadmill, riding a stationary bike, or walking either indoors or outdoors.

Additionally, patients were given advice about getting schoolwork done and told to avoid excessive use of electronic devices, since that can aggravate symptoms.

Both forms of exercise were performed for about 20 minutes per day, and participants reported their daily symptoms and compliance online.

Patients who followed the aerobic exercise programme took on average 13 days to recover, while those who performed stretching exercises took 17 days. The researchers also found that fewer patients in the exercise group took longer than four weeks to recover, compared with patients in the control group.

“This research provides the strongest evidence yet that a prescribed, individualised aerobic exercise programme that keeps the heart rate below the point where symptoms worsen is the best way to treat concussion in adolescents,” said first author of the study Dr John J. Leddy from the University at Buffalo.

As part of their work, the researchers plan to investigate if the treatment is also effective in adults with concussion.