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Walk Yourself Well

March 20, 2017

While exercise may not be your first choice in activity when you have painful, cramped legs due to peripheral artery disease (PAD), it could actually be the best option for you. As studies show, exercise can not only improve the symptoms of PAD, it can also slow down the progression of the disease.


The Value of Exercise

PAD occurs when plaque made up of cholesterol and other fatty substances clogs the blood vessels that lead to the legs and feet. This often results in pain and/or cramping in the legs as a result of the restricted blood and oxygen to muscles.

Although it seems counterintuitive to put more stress on your blood vessels and muscles by increasing activity, exercise can actually improve circulation, help form new blood vessels, and ease overall pain.


Walk Your Way to Wellness

It’s always a good idea to speak to your doctor prior to starting any type of exercise.

Emile R. Mohler, III, MD, Director of Vascular Medicine at Penn Medicine, stated that “several randomized clinical trials have shown that walking can make a real difference for people with peripheral artery disease. Any other exercise is fine. There’s no limitation in what a person with peripheral artery disease can do but the majority of the clinical trials out there support the benefits of walking. That is why we recommend it for our patients.”

Dr. Mohler mentions that it is best to work with a physical therapist to start a walking program. In the situation where insurance doesn’t cover the therapy, it is still better to walk whenever possible. Even short walks around your own neighborhood can greatly help.


Best Steps

According to Dr. Mohler, the key to getting the most out of your walking program is to follow the following steps:

Step 1: Warm up.

Stretch your calf and thigh muscles in each leg for 10 to 15 seconds.

Step 2: Start walking.

Walk at a fast enough pace for about 5 minutes, even though it may cause some mild pain.

Step 3: Stop and rest.

After 5 minutes of mild or moderate pain, stop and rest until the pain goes away.

Step 4: Repeat.

The walk-and-stop routine several times. During the first two months of your walking program, build up slowly to walking a total of 35 minutes each session, not counting the rest breaks. Keep adding a few minutes until you’re at the goal of walking 50 minutes.

Step 5: Cool down.

Finish by walking slowly for 5 minutes. Then, stretch your calf and thigh muscles again.

Step 6: Stick with it.

Aim to eventually do 50 minutes of walking, at least 3 to 5 times a week. As that becomes easier, challenge yourself to work harder. You could try walking up hills or stairs, or add an incline to your treadmill routine.


Peripheral artery disease took years to develop in your legs, so it won’t just get better overnight. It will likely take a few months to improve with walking. Dr. Mohler says, “It’s important to be patient with yourself.”

The most important thing is taking care of yourself. Be sure to get checked by a qualified professional if you have any concerns about your vascular health.  

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