“No sweat” may be very bad health advice. It's true we only need to keep moving to reap some of the health benefits of physical activity. But in order to get the full range of benefits, it pays to exert ourselves. And now new research shows that exercising enough to work up a sweat may significantly reduce your risk of stroke or mini-stroke.

Researchers looked at data from roughly 27,000 people involved in a large-scale study on stroke for nearly six years. The participants were a balanced mix of men, women, Caucasians and African-Americans. There were slightly more participants from states collectively known as the “stroke belt”: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

The effect that exercise has on reducing stroke actually comes from its effects on several body systems.

Lifestyles were also considered — how much someone exercised, for example. Researchers also kept track of whether or not a person ended up having a stroke or other Ischemic Stroke.

The risk of stroke was 20% greater for people who exercised less than once a week than for people who exercised vigorously — enough to break a sweat — at least four times per week. About a third of the participants fell into the "inactive" category.

When the team analyzed the data by sex, however, things weren’t so clear-cut. For men, the results above held true, but for women, there wasn’t the significant relationship between exercise, even vigorous exercise, and stroke risk. The authors feel that women may get similar benefits from non-vigorous exercise, such as walking, so the study wouldn’t have picked up this effect, since it didn’t test for it.

Exercise may lower stroke risk because it impacts several body systems. “Exercise reduces blood pressure, weight and diabetes. If exercise was a pill, you'd be taking one pill to treat four or five different conditions,” said study author Michelle McDonnell in a statement.

Research on the exercise-stroke connection has been lacking, but we’re starting to get a clearer idea of the relationship. “We can tell you how much your stroke risk improves for each cigarette you cut out or every point you reduce your blood pressure, but we still need good studies on the amount you can reduce your risk of stroke by taking up exercise,” McDonnell said.

The American Heart Association, which published the study, recommends 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week (broken down over five days), or 60 minutes of vigorous intensity (broken down over three). Muscle strengthening activities are also recommended at least two days per week.

The study was carried out by a team at the University of South Australia and published in the AHA’s journal, Stroke.