If you’re one of the 10 million people who suffer with peripheral artery disease, or PAD, the arteries that transport blood from your heart through your body have narrowed. As a result, blood and oxygen flow is reduced, especially in your legs and feet. It can be a pretty painful condition particularly when you’re walking.
No wonder people with PAD often choose a sedentary lifestyle to avoid the cramping, weakness, fatigue, aching and pain that walking can trigger.
But that’s not the best approach. A new study funded by the American Heart Association shows that if you have PAD, the benefits of walking are well worth the short-term discomfort.
Researchers looked at the effects of home-based walking for exercise among 264 PAD patients who were part of a randomized clinical trial called the Low-Intensity Exercise Intervention in PAD (LITE). From 2014 to December 2019, participants were enrolled in the LITE study at four U.S. medical centers — Northwestern and Tulane Universities, the University of Minnesota and the University of Pittsburgh. For this study, the average age was 69 years. Forty-eight percent were women and 61 were adults of color.
Participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups for 12 months:
People who exercised and walked through leg pain or discomfort scored one point higher in all three leg functions compared to participants who walked a comfortable pace with no leg pain.
- Group 1 (38 percent) walked at home at a comfortable pace;
- Group 2 (41 percent) walked at home at a pace that produced leg pain/symptoms;
- Group 3 (28 percent) did not walk for exercise.
Members of the two groups that exercised wore a device called an ActiGraph that monitored the intensity of their walking, as well as the amount of time they spent walking. All the groups completed three tests of leg function that included walking speed at their usual pace for a 13-foot distance, walking speed over the same distance at a fast pace and completing the short physical performance battery at the beginning of the study and at 6 and 12 months. This regimen consists of walking the 13 feet at their usual pace, as well as a standing balance test and the time it took for five repeated chair rises.
The study uncovered two key findings. The first was that compared to non-exercisers, participants in the group that walked for exercise at a pace that caused discomfort or leg pain walked nearly 13 feet per minute faster at six months. It’s interesting to note that this increase wasn’t statistically significant at 12 months.
It turns out that in this case, the adage “no pain, no gain” is apt.
“We were surprised by the results because walking for exercise at a pace that induces pain in the legs among people with PAD has been thought to be associated with damage to leg muscles.” senior author, Mary M. McDermott, the Jeremiah Stamler Professor of Medicine and Preventive Medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, said in a statement.
Avoid taking cold medications containing pseudoephedrine. One of its side effects is that it narrows your blood vessels which increases PAD’s symptoms.
But McDermott added the thinking has changed. “Based on these results, clinicians should advise participants to walk for exercise at a pace that induces leg pain or discomfort.”
If you have PAD and haven’t been walking past your personal discomfort or pain level, but want to give it a try, be sure to discuss the idea with your healthcare provider first. Here are other tips for PAD sufferers:
- If you smoke, quit! Smoking makes it even harder for your blood to travel through your arteries and can increase your chance of stroke and heart attack.
- Eat a healthy diet. Consume foods that are good for your heart including plenty of fruits, veggies, lean protein and whole grains. Also, stay away from processed foods.
- Avoid taking cold medications containing pseudoephedrine. One of its side effects is that it narrows your blood vessels which increases PAD’s symptoms.
- Practice good foot and skin care to avoid infection.
- Treat yourself to chocolate.
The study is published in American Heart Association Journal.