Dan Nowak: Stroke Survivor Becomes Strength Trainer

Updated:Oct 29,2013

Excerpted from "Resist This!," Stroke Connection January/February 2004

Dan Nowak, 54, is a fitness trainer who specializes in strength training for stroke survivors. Fitness training is his second career. He took it up after his first career and marriage cratered after he had two strokes in two months at age 48. The strokes left him with lots of deficits, right side and cognitive. “I had reached my maximum medical outcome — the legal euphemism for ‘lost your insurance and doctors don’t want to help anymore.’”

Eighteen months after his stroke, Dan started going to the YMCA for water therapy and other activities. “Somehow I got in the fitness area and was surprised that I couldn’t even lift 10 pounds over my head,” Dan says.

“I met a young fellow named Lewis Thore who is a semi-pro body builder.  He was a tremendous source of inspiration for me. He started me on a training program, and then after a couple months I began taking nutritional supplements. I spent at least 10 hours a day doing weights, working in the pool, everything. As I progressed, I was amazed to learn that I could lift heavy weight and still not have the fine motor skills to pick a dime up off the floor. 

“I met my doctor at the gym one day, and I asked him what I’d get back, and he said, ‘You’re probably as good as you’re going to get.’ Hearing that was a big incentive to get better. Lewis worked with me for two years, mostly with weights, and I started getting better. What I found was that if you work the big muscles, the little ones find their home.”

During this time, Dan attended a stroke support group meeting out of curiosity. “I was never so bored in my life. They had singers in there and spent time on where they were going to eat next week, nothing to help me. I went for 3-4 months and finally said, ‘You’re not telling us what to do to get better.’” 

Dan knew he could help stroke survivors using weights because he’d seen such dramatic improvements in himself. Soon after his last support group meeting, he had a friend make a small brochure about a strength training class for stroke survivors. He sent out 200 to stroke survivors in Winston-Salem and three showed up. “All three had the same question, ‘How good can I get?’ I said, ‘How much are you going to give?’”

After working with these first three, Dan started a non-profit group called The Millennium Team. At first they planned to train stroke survivors to train other survivors, but they have since changed and are training fitness trainers to work with survivors.

They recently made plans to start working at a second YMCA in the Winston-Salem area. And they were also incorporating more advanced devices to measure range of motion. “We want to collect scientific data so we can get better funding.”

Recently Dan heard from the doctor who had told him he was as good as he would get. In an e-mail, he wrote: “I thought I would drop you a line to let you know how well you have done with the recovery from your stroke. The progress you have made has been phenomenal. The idea of using the larger spared muscles to first gain fitness and then to recruit the smaller, affected muscles with a rigorous program has worked far better than I could have imagined. Keep up the good work!!!” 

“When people saw that I had overcome a significant deficit, they decided to work out with me. I am currently working with 11 stroke survivors, but I want to work with more people. There are probably 600 people in our county who can use what we are doing.”