Fit To Function: Brain Injury Specialist and CrossFit Games Veteran Use Fitness To Help Stroke Patients

January 17, 2021 by
Courtesy of Jenna Muri-Rosenthal
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For most CrossFitters, the call of 3…2…1… Go! Is the signal to turn your brain off and work. The battle cry, “don’t think, just go” is a common refrain amid the slamming of barbells and heavy breathing. But for the athletes of CrossFit Coaches Jenna Muri-Rosenthal and Spencer Hendel, the workout of the day has turned into a way to help heal their brains.

One big thing: Traditional healthcare options often fail to bring stroke and traumatic brain injury (TBI) patients back to a level of function they seek. Hendel and Muri-Rosenthal are looking to change that and provide these patients with alternative forms of recovery that bring them beyond what insurance-covered recovery has in the past. 

Who are they: Muri-Rosenthal has worked as a speech-language pathologist and certified brain injury specialist, aiding in stroke, and recovery. Hendel is an eight-time CrossFit Games veteran and member of the CrossFit Seminar Staff. Together they have created “Fit to Function,” based in in the Boston, MA area.

  • “Traditional healthcare and limitations of insurance often consider recovery via the lens of a “good enough” model. In the months and years following a brain injury or stroke, survivors have ongoing recovery potential that goes beyond limitations of the support of insurance and standard rehabilitative care,” said.
  • “Over the years I’ve treated many stroke/TBI survivors privately once they have completed traditional rehabilitation and returned home,” Muri-Rosenthal elaborated. “These survivors are looking for ways to continue to improve and find their way back to some level of normalcy and independence. For some that means returning to work, for others, it’s greater involvement in household/family responsibilities.”
  • “Beyond traditional cognitive-communication needs and physical limitations as a result of their neurological injury, survivors struggle with confidence, independence, and the inherent isolation that comes with losing a sense of self and ability to participate in their prior home/family life, work, and community activities,” she concluded.

From fitness to function: Once Hendel and Muri-Rosenthal realized the clear gaps in traditional rehabilitation, they decided to do something. The program is based around the  functional movements at the heart of CrossFit workouts to help aid in the neuroplasticity of stroke and TBI survivor’s brains.

  • “Crossfit’s focus on functional fitness translates readily to functional recovery from stroke. Many stroke/TBI survivors need to adapt to a new way of moving, some while simultaneously working toward the return of function/movement,” she said.
  • “Where traditional therapy largely targets isolated movements and basic movement patterns, CrossFit takes the movements and applies these to functional movement,” she continued.
  • “Repetition of functional movement aids in the process of neuroplasticity, and what happens in a gym builds carryover into real-world movement generalization, which in turn promotes carryover into everyday functional routines,” Muri-Rosenthal concluded.

More than just working out: Once Muri-Rosenthal and Hendel started getting patients in the gym and working out, they soon realized that the movements themselves weren’t the only thing aiding in recovery. Things like memorizing the workout, counting repetitions, and remembering the names of movements all helped patients with the cognitive and communication side of recovery.

  • “Even the seemingly simple tasks of scheduling sessions and/or signing up for classes and getting to and from the gym helps survivors build independence (and targets functional planning, reasoning, and memory),” said Mrui-Rosenthal.

Bringing patients in: Hendel and Muri-Rosenthal’s program is designed to get stroke patients moving. They started by bringing patients into private sessions with two coaches to every one athlete. From there, the athletes slowly progress towards the small group training classes one might see in a traditional CrossFit gym.

  • “I don’t know where I would be without Spencer and Jenna! They got me to do things with my right hand that I couldn’t do before my stroke, and my aphasia is getting better and better!” said one 29-year-old stroke survivor who had participated in their program.
  • “I’m getting my life back,” another 42-year-old program participant and stroke survivor commented.

Exercise and the brain: There is ample evidence illustrating the power of exercise and its ability to impact the brain and the body’s ability to function. In other brain and neurological diseases, exercise is often used as a sort of “medicine” to the slow their impact.

  • According to the Michael J. Fox Foundation, “exercise is one of the most powerful treatments for Parkinson’s Disease,” a brain disorder that often leads to shaking, stiffness, and difficulty walking.
  • The doctors at this prominent Parkinson’s research foundation recommend exercise for all patients as a way to slow the progression of the disease and reverse symptoms.
  • The National Multiple Sclerosis Society also recommends exercise as a way to manage the symptoms of MS, a central nervous system disease that interrupts the flow of information from the brain to the body.
  • Additionally, there have been a number of published studies on the role of exercise in preventing Alzheimer’s.
  • Recently, Julie Foucher’s podcast, Pursuing Health had an episode on the benefits of high intensity exercise for brain optimization.

The big picture: Over the years, CrossFit LLC has highlighted the tremendous impact the training methodology has had on the physical health of thousands of affiliate members and participants, especially in terms of weight loss. However, it is easy to forget how much movement and exercise can impact the brain. The ability of these patients to use functional movement to aid in their recovery process is truly a testament to the transfomative power of exercise. 

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