Walking Gives Leg Up on Clogged Limb Arteries

Peripheral artery disease symptoms may be eased through home walking program

(RxWiki News) With peripheral artery disease, arteries narrow and harden, decreasing blood flow to the legs. To relieve the pain and improve circulation, one of the simplest and most effective solutions may be walking.

Affecting 12 to 20 percent of Americans over the age 65, people with peripheral artery disease (PAD) also can have increased risk of heart attack and stroke. Although PAD patients may experience leg pain, walking on a regular basis has been shown to help improve blood flow and possibly reverse plaque buildup in the arteries (atherosclerosis).

A new study has found that a home-based walking program may be an effective way to encourage patients with PAD to walk more.

"Take walks on a regular basis if you have peripheral artery disease."

Mary McGrae McDermott, MD, professor of medicine at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, led the investigation, which included 168 PAD patients.

For six months, 81 participants received weekly instruction on how to follow an at-home walking program. Then for the next six months, these individuals received phone calls encouraging them to stick to their regular home exercise regimen.

These patients were instructed to try to walk at least five days a week at home and work up to 50 minutes per session. If they experienced leg pain, they were told to stop and rest until pain subsided and they could continue walking.

A total of 87 patients were placed in a control group. These patients attended weekly educational meetings for a year and were called with health advice on topics unrelated to PAD, such as high blood pressure, cancer screenings and vaccinations. They were not given instruction on home-based walking.

After a year, Dr. McDermott and team discovered that the home walking group could walk farther than they could when they started the program. They went from walking an average of about 1,166 feet to 1,253 feet in a six-minute stretch — an improvement of about 87 feet.

Meanwhile, the control group took a step backwards, so to speak. Their walking distance dropped slightly from 1,158.4 feet to 1,133.8 feet.

According to the American Heart Association, those who smoke or have high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes face a higher likelihood of developing PAD.

According to Dr. McDermott, walking is one of the best non-invasive treatments for PAD.

"The problem with supervised exercise is that it takes many visits to a cardiac rehabilitation center or other exercise facility, and it is not covered by Medicare," said Dr. McDermott in a press release. "Our results should encourage physicians to recommend walking even if their patients do not have access to a supervised-exercise program."

Sarah Samaan, MD, cardiologist and physician partner at the Baylor Heart Hospital in Plano, Texas, told dailyRx News, “Walking exercise helps to strengthen alternate pathways for blood flow to the legs, essentially allowing the body to create its own ‘bypass.’ A simple home walking program can substantially improve your mobility and your health — and it's free.”

This study was released May 21 in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

The research was funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and in part by the Intramural Research Program of the National Institutes on Aging.

Review Date: 
May 21, 2014