If you’re experiencing pain or cramping in your legs when you walk or are doing other forms of physical activity, you might be suffering from Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD). If you are, you already know how painful it can be. Here, you’ll learn what the best exercise for peripheral artery disease is and how to implement it to most effectively manage your symptoms so you can reduce the amount of pain you feel.
What is peripheral artery disease?
Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD) is a common circulatory problem that occurs when the arteries that supply blood to your limbs become narrowed due to the buildup of what is called “plaque.” Plaque is primarily made up of fatty deposits, but also includes cellular waste, calcium and proteins. When plaque builds up it reduces blood flow.
It typically occurs in the legs, where plaque builds up and narrows the arteries, restricting blood flow to the extremities, leading to those painful sensations you may be experiencing in your legs. This is called atherosclerosis (a type of arteriosclerosis)—which is the thickening or hardening of arteries caused by the buildup of plaque in the inner lining of your artery.
What are the risk factors & symptoms of peripheral artery disease?
The symptoms of peripheral artery disease (PAD) often include:
- Leg pain: This is the biggest & most common symptom of PAD showing up as pain or cramping in the legs during physical activity, such as walking or climbing stairs.
- Numbness or weakness: A feeling of numbness or weakness in the legs.
- Coldness in the lower leg or foot: Reduced blood flow can make the affected limb feel colder than the rest of the body.
- Changes in skin color: Skin on the legs may appear pale or bluish.
Risk factors for developing peripheral artery disease can include:
- High cholesterol & triglyceride levels
- High blood pressure
- Physical activity
- Eating saturated fats (Check out “Nutrition For Older Adults” to learn how to make healthy food choices instead)
Why does walking or physical activity cause pain in my legs?
Claudication is the hallmark symptom of peripheral artery disease. It’s characterized by the pain, cramping, or discomfort in your legs that you experience during physical activity. It occurs because the narrowed arteries cannot deliver sufficient oxygen and nutrients to the leg muscles during exercise. As a result, the muscles don’t receive an adequate blood supply, leading to pain specifically during physical activity when your muscles need more oxygen.
What is the best way to manage peripheral artery disease?
The most recommended way to manage PAD is also the most simple: exercise. Exercise can help improve blood circulation, reduce symptoms, and enhance overall cardiovascular health. When it comes to managing PAD, walking is often considered the best exercise.
The Benefits of Exercise for PAD:
- Improved circulation: Exercise increases blood flow, helping to bypass blockages in the arteries and deliver oxygen-rich blood to the affected limbs.
- Reduced claudication: Regular exercise can improve your tolerance to pain and discomfort during physical activity.
- Lowered cardiovascular risk: Exercise lowers the risk of heart disease and other complications associated with PAD.
- Enhanced quality of life: By managing symptoms and improving mobility, exercise can significantly improve your overall quality of life.
The Best Exercise For Peripheral Artery Disease
Hands down the best exercise for peripheral artery disease is walking.
Supervised Exercise Treadmill Training (SET) programs are structured exercise regimens offered in clinical settings. They involve supervised walking on a treadmill while monitoring blood pressure, heart rate, and symptoms. Speed, steepness and time are continuously adjusted throughout each session. However, SET programs are often not accessible to everyone due to location or health insurance.
Enter… Home-Based Exercise Programs.
This is an interval-based program you do at on your own, according to your own fitness level in the same style as the SET program.
Here’s a breakdown of what you should do to create your own home-based program to help manage PAD symptoms:
- Start with a few minutes of gentle walking to prepare your muscles for exercise and include calf & thigh stretches.
Start walking (either on a treadmill or outside):
- Go at a pace that allows you to maintain a conversation without becoming too breathless
- Continue even if you feel mild pain
- Once the pain worsens, rest for a few minutes
- Begin walking again
- Repeat this walk-and-rest process for 30-45 minutes of walking time (not including rest periods)
- Finish with a slow walk for a few minutes then stretch out your calf and thighs again
If you’re just starting out, remember that any exercise is helpful. It’s okay to start at 10 or 15 minutes and build up the duration from there. Try to aim for increasing the length of each session by 5 minutes each week until you can walk for 45 minutes without stopping.
You should try to do 30-60 minutes of walking per day, 5 days a week. Over the course of a few months you’ll start to notice a decrease in PAD symptoms.
[Always remember to talk to your doctor about new exercise routines and if it’s right for you. If you experience extreme pain, stop what you are doing.]
Other exercises that can help manage the symptoms of PAD
While walking is the gold standard for managing PAD, other low-impact exercises, such as cycling, chair cardio, swimming, and water aerobics, can also be beneficial. These exercises offer a cardiovascular workout without placing excessive stress on the joints. Strength training exercises can also help improve overall muscle function and support better circulation. Just know that while these exercise can help manage symptoms, studies have shown that they ultimately led to less of an improvement than walking.
To help manage your symptoms and reduce the amount of pain you feel, walking is the best exercise for peripheral artery disease. Talk to your doctor about starting a home-based walking program and remember to be patient. You’ll start noticing a different soon, but big results can take months.