Harvard Heart Letter

Heart Beat: Exercise benefits clogged leg arteries

Heart Beat

Exercise benefits clogged leg arteries

Exercise is excellent medicine for people with coronary arteries that are clogged and stiffened by cholesterol-filled plaque. Does it work as well for people with plaque-damaged leg arteries, a condition known as peripheral artery disease? Walking has been shown to ease the leg pain that often accompanies peripheral artery disease. A study that included 156 Chicago-area residents extends the value of exercise to everyone with this potentially disabling condition, even those without leg pain. Six months of supervised treadmill walking improved the distance the trial participants were able to walk in six minutes. It made them feel better. It also improved the flexibility of arteries and blood flow throughout the body, which may well lower the chance of having a heart attack or stroke, which is much higher in people with peripheral artery disease. (That's because atherosclerosis in the leg arteries almost certainly means atherosclerosis in other arteries throughout the body, including those that nourish the heart and brain.) Six months of resistance exercise improved leg strength, treadmill walking time, the ability to climb stairs, and quality of life (Journal of the American Medical Association, Jan. 14, 2009).

The researchers recommend supervised exercise, at least at first, for people with peripheral artery disease who haven't been very active. And don't ignore daily physical activity, like walking around the block and climbing stairs. The more you do, the more you fight the physical decline that often accompanies peripheral artery disease (Journal of the American Medical Association, Jan. 21, 2009).

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