Approximately 8 million people in the US have peripheral artery disease - a condition characterized by blockage or narrowing of blood vessels, which can cause muscle pain and cramping in the arms and legs. But new research suggests that home-based exercise programs may improve mobility for patients with the disease.
According to the research team, led by Dr. Mary McGrae McDermott of the Northwestern University Feinburg School of Medicine in Chicago, IL, past research has indicated that supervised exercise can reduce symptoms of peripheral artery disease (PAD) and improve walking ability.
But the researchers note that this latest study is the first to investigate how a home-based walking program can offer long-term benefits for patients with PAD.
To reach their findings, recently published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, the team enrolled 81 PAD patients into a 6-month home-based exercise program that focused on walking.
Within the program, patients were instructed to try and walk a minimum of 5 days a week, gradually building up to 50 minutes. They were told to stop and rest if leg pain occurred, and start walking again once they were comfortable.
During this period, patients took part in weekly meetings aimed at providing extra support and skills training to help them stick to the exercise program. In the 6 months after the program had ceased, patients received phone calls to encourage them to continue walking.
To act as controls, the research team enrolled an additional 87 PAD patients into weekly educational meetings for a 1-year period. During this time, patients also received phone calls on topics unrelated to PAD, such as cancer screening, vaccinations and hypertension.
Home-based exercise programs 'increased walking distance' for PAD patients
After 12 months, the investigators compared the effects of the home-based exercise program with those of the weekly educational meetings.
They found that patients involved in the home-based exercise program increased the distance they could walk in 6 minutes, from 355.4 meters to 381.9 meters. Those involved in the weekly educational meetings saw their walking distance reduce, from 353.1 meters to 345.6 meters.
These findings, the researchers say, suggest that home-based exercise programs are an effective strategy for improving mobility of PAD patients, particularly compared with supervised-exercise programs.
Dr. McDermott says:
"The problem with supervised exercise is that it takes many visits to a cardiac rehabilitation center or other exercise facilities, and it is not covered by Medicare. Our results should encourage physicians to recommend walking even if their patients do not have access to a supervised-exercise program."
He notes, however, that such exercise programs must consider that walking can cause cramps in leg muscles that are oxygen-deprived. Therefore, just like the program used in this study, patients should alternate between walking and rest as a way of increasing their walking distance before pain starts.
Patients with PAD who took part in a 6-month home-based exercise program increased the distance they were able to walk in 6 minutes, from 355.4 meters to 381.9 meters.
However, plaque build-ups do not always cause symptoms, meaning the condition can often go undiagnosed. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, many people who do experience symptoms pass them off as a natural part of aging.
Dr. McDermott says the team's findings emphasize the importance of identifying and treating PAD.
"Don't think walking problems are a normal part of aging. If you have leg pain, weakness, tingling or other difficulty walking, report it to your doctor and ask about the possibility you may have PAD," he advises. "Diagnosing PAD is important because therapies can improve your health."
It is not only PAD patients for whom home-based exercise programs may offer benefits. Earlier this year, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting that such programs may improve recovery for patients with hip fractures.