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Articles November 2011 Issue

Take a Walk to Reduce Your Risk of Peripheral Artery Disease

Get up off the couch, go for a walk, and you’ll be less likely to have problems with peripheral artery disease (PAD), say the authors of a new study. John P. Cooke, MD, PhD, of Stanford University Medical Center, and colleagues report in the Journal of Vascular Surgery that if you make it a habit, even light activity, such as going for a stroll, is enough to reduce your risk of the condition.

Dr. Cooke and colleagues studied 1,381 patients in the Genetic Determinants of Peripheral Artery Disease Study, 258 of whom were found to have PAD. All were scheduled for elective coronary angiography and were at high risk for atherosclerosis—making the study’s findings that even light exercise could be beneficial still more remarkable, according to researchers. PAD is usually caused by atherosclerosis, narrowing the arteries of the legs.

The 30% of participants who described themselves as entirely sedentary, with no lifetime recreational activity, were nearly twice as likely to have PAD as the most-active participants. There was little difference in PAD risk between those in three intermediate levels of activity. But the greatest reduction in risk came just from being in one of those moderately active groups instead of staying completely sedentary: The sedentary participants were 46% more likely to have PAD than those engaging in any activity at all.

Are You at Risk for PAD?
About 8 million people in the US suffer from peripheral artery disease, according to the American Heart Association; the condition becomes more common with age. PAD is a narrowing of the peripheral arteries, most commonly in the pelvis and legs. The most common symptoms of PAD are cramping, pain or tiredness in the leg or hip muscles while walking or climbing stairs. Typically, this pain goes away with rest and returns when you walk again. Many people mistake the symptoms of PAD for something else, and PAD often goes undiagnosed by healthcare professionals. Once diagnosed, however, PAD can usually be managed with lifestyle changes and medication. Those at added risk for PAD include smokers, people with diabetes, those with high blood pressure, and those with unhealthy cholesterol levels.

The study wasn’t designed to show the mechanism behind this apparent benefit, but researchers suggested multiple ways in which physical activity could help the legs as well as the heart. Exercise may enhance the function of blood vessels, improve microcirculatory function and reduce age-related arterial stiffness.

“Our study is the first to reveal that a person’s level of recreational activity is associated with whether or not they develop PAD,” says Dr. Cooke. “Based on our study, it seems likely that people who regularly engage in recreational activity— even mild exercise such as strolling—throughout their lives are much less likely to develop lifestyle-limiting and limb-threatening PAD.”

TO LEARN MORE: Journal of Vascular Surgery, August 2011; abstract at dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jvs.2011.02.052.

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