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Recovering From a TBI: Why Exercise Is Vital

TBI Recovery & Exercise

After a traumatic brain injury (TBI) or concussion, it is advised that the injured person rest and refrain from engaging in mentally or physically strenuous activities.

However, a TBI victim should not lay in bed all day as this can do more harm than good. At some point, the doctor should direct the patient to gradually start increasing their daily activities up to the level their body and brain can tolerate.

We recommend caution when trying to incorporate exercise into an injured victim’s routine. A person who has suffered a brain injury should consult with their treating physician first, before attempting any exercise or moderately strenuous activity.

Concussion Treatment: Rest vs. Exercise

In the past, most doctors would recommend that TBI patients should refrain from exercise and all mental and physical activities until the concussion symptoms disappeared completely.

If concussion symptoms lingered, this period of inactivity could last from several days to several months. This “cocooning” has been found to increase depression and anxiety in patients and lengthen their overall recovery time.

The most recent studies have shown that when a brain injury patient rests for more than two days, this period of inactivity can lead to worse outcomes.

Sadly, many health care practitioners are not aware of the newest research, and they continue to tell their patients that the only treatment they need is rest. This practice is just not supported by science.

Rest is an important part of the process. Exercise, though, can improve blood flow to the brain and sometimes alleviate concussion symptoms.

What to Consider Before Exercising

The starting point begins with the patient and their treating physician. There are so many factors, including pre-existing diseases or other injuries, which might make exercise risky or even dangerous in some situations.

A TBI victim should not engage in any physical activity which could increase their risk of re-injury. These activities could include contact sports like karate, jiu-jitsu, or boxing. It also includes activities that could cause a jolt or impact to the head or body, such as running or jumping rope.

The best approach is to start slow and see what a concussion victim can do to elevate their heart rate without risking their safety and wellbeing.


Several factors that can work against a concussion victim when they try to start an exercise regimen:

  • Fatigue: This is a common complaint among TBI victims. They feel tired, lack energy, and don’t feel like doing anything.
  • Pain: Headaches before, during, or after exercising can be a difficult barrier to push through.
  • Weight gain/Physical injuries: After a traumatic incident, a person may gain weight or have to deal with other injuries in addition to a TBI that limits activity level.
  • Depression: A lack of motivation or desire to do anything can hamper recovery efforts.

Fight these barriers to exercise! Talk with your doctor and find something safe that you can do if you fear re-injury or aggravation of your symptoms.

There are many different ways to stimulate the body without having to engage in an intense workout routine. In some cases, a physical therapist may be needed to provide support and guidance.

Mental Exercise

One consequence of a TBI is swelling or inflammation of the brain. Inflammation can damage neural connections, interrupting the brain’s ability to communicate within itself and the body. For most patients, these neural pathways will begin to heal after a couple of weeks.

But for some, there are delays, and the brain may need to generate new pathways for mental information to flow. This innate healing ability in the brain is known as “neuroplasticity.”

Cognitive exercises can help retrain the patient’s brain’s neurons to re-establish connections or re-route connections that may have stopped working because of the TBI.

Brain health exercises can include activities like word searches, board games, puzzles, and drawing. Avoid the use of online games and phone apps as these can tire your brain more easily.

Why Exercise After a Concussion Is Important to the Recovery Process

Exercise, in general, can help prevent major health problems like cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes. Staying active can also lower your blood pressure and improve overall mental and emotional health.

Aerobic exercise facilitates better brain functioning by increasing blood flow to the brain, which gives it the oxygen it needs. Aerobic exercises include activities like brisk walking, swimming, or cycling. This type of exercise can also cause the brain to produce chemicals that can stimulate cell growth and improve neuroplasticity.

Under normal, healthy circumstances, the American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise.

Studies have shown that every time you exercise your body produces a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This protein promotes the regrowth/repair of neurons involved in learning and memory. This boost can continue for several hours after exercise, which is critical in healing trauma to the brain.

Take It Slow

The best approach is to see what you can do to elevate your heart rate without increasing your symptoms. Try riding a stationary bike, working out in a pool, or walking around your neighborhood.

If your body starts to tell you, “Ow, that hurts,” then stop the activity. You may have pushed yourself too far too soon. Reduce the intensity level next time.

You may be able to tolerate only 10 minutes of exercise, but that 10 minutes of aerobic work can help boost brain functioning and healing. Maybe the next time you can do 11 minutes, and then 12 minutes. Over time, you will increase your ability to perform.

It is also a good idea to create an exercise plan for your week so you can mentally prepare for the exercise activity. For example:

Monday, Wednesday, and Friday: Walk around your neighborhood.

Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday: Ride an exercise bike.

Sunday: Rest.

What Not to Do

Do not play sports or drive until released by your healthcare provider.

Some of your symptoms may come and go throughout your recovery. Unless they are in the danger category, you can expect some good days and bad days.

Most people will take several weeks before they feel back to “normal.” However, your return to normal activities may cause your symptoms to return. Don’t overdo it — notify your treating physician regarding your condition with recurring symptoms.

Other Therapies For TBI Treatment and Rehabilitation

Other types of therapies may be needed to facilitate a brain injury victim’s recovery. These can include:

  • Manual therapy: Physical therapy or chiropractic care may help treat symptoms in the neck. If you are experiencing headaches, balance problems, visual issues, dizziness, or vertigo, it may be from blood flow abnormalities. These could be symptoms from both a TBI and a neck injury (such as whiplash).
  • Exercise therapy: In conjunction with a doctor or a physical therapist's recommendations, exercise has been shown to improve circulation and blood flow which could speed your recovery.
  • Vestibular/Vision therapy: Dizziness, vertigo, and visual problems are common complaints following a TBI. A rehabilitation program designed to address these symptoms can often help reduce the severity of these issues.
  • Nutrition assistance: A well-balanced diet with a heavy emphasis on fruits and vegetables is vital for your brain and body’s health and recovery. But sometimes, patients need a more advanced program from a nutritionist or dietician that emphasizes healthy eating habits. This change in diet can help offset inflammation in the brain and reduce symptoms.

TBI Accident Recovery

Healing after a TBI can feel like an overwhelming process, especially after a traumatic event. If your injuries were caused by a car accident, work accident, or due to someone else’s negligence, our Atlanta personal injury law firm is here to assist you.

Gary Martin Hays & Associates specializes in helping brain injury victims receive medical care and compensation after an accident. Give us a call at (770) 934-8000 to discuss your case.

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