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May 27, 2014 02:27 AM EDT

PAD Patients Benefit from Home-Based Exercise Programs, Study

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Home-based exercise programs help people suffering from clogged leg arteries to walk long distances and faster, according to a Northwestern University study.

Previous studies showed that supervised exercise enhances walking and lowers the symptoms of Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD). This is the first study that shows the long-term benefits of a home-based walking program.

Since PAD often remains undiagnosed, it can become a life-threatening illness as it restricts circulation of blood to the legs, arms, feet, and kidneys. PAD patients face high risk of heart attack and stroke.

"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 Mary McGrae McDermott, M.D., lead author and the Jeremiah Stamler professor of medicine at the Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, 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."

For the study, the researchers compared walking ability in the patients and controls at the end of one year.

For the first six months, 81 patients received support and skills training once a week to help them perform the home exercise program effectively. The program instructed patients to walk at least five days a week for an overall of 50 minutes. When they experienced leg pain, they were asked to take rest and resume once they felt comfortable.

From seven to 12 months, the participants received phone calls that encouraged them to continue walking.

On the other hand, 87 controls participated in weekly education meetings for the first six months. For the remaining six months, they received phone calls on unrelated PAD topics like managing hypertension, cancer screening and vaccinations.

The researchers found that participants in the home-based program increased their walking ability in six minutes from 355.4 to 381.9 meters, a progress of about 87 feet. While the walking speed of the controls decreased from 353.1 to 345.6 meters.

McDermott said that walking is the most effective non-invasive treatment for PAD. Excessive walking may cause a cramp-like pain in leg muscles due to insufficient oxygen. As a result, programs need to incorporate alternative walking and rest schedules.

"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. Diagnosing PAD is important because therapies can improve your health," said McDermott.

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