What to Know About Exercises for Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD)

Medically Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on February 11, 2024
3 min read

‌If you're living with peripheral artery disease (PAD), you know how painful even a short walk can feel. When plaque builds up inside your arteries, it hardens over time and restricts the amount of blood that flows to your legs. ‌While this may cause some discomfort while walking, exercise is one of the best ways to manage PAD symptoms. Here's what you should know about exercising with PAD.

While it might seem as if exercise might make PAD symptoms worse, it can actually help improve your circulation and ease the pain.

PAD restricts blood flow to muscles in your legs, so painful cramping occurs. Exercise forces you to work harder, increasing blood flow. Feeling discomfort in the legs while you walk is your body's way of letting you know that blood is working its way through your muscles and down into your affected blood vessels. Pushing through the discomfort by walking for at least 30 to 50 minutes every day can help relieve PAD symptoms.

One of the best exercises for PAD is walking. This low-impact activity elevates your heart rate and — once you get through the initial challenges — can help improve mobility over time.

You'll likely have some discomfort when you start, but it will go away as you continue walking.

Start slowly, aiming to keep a good pace and continuing to walk even if you begin to feel mild pain. If the pain becomes too difficult to push through, take a break and rest for a few minutes. Your goal should be to increase the length of each walking session by five minutes each week until you can walk for 45 minutes without stopping.

Ultimately, you should build up to a total walking time of approximately 30 to 60 minutes five days a week. After three to six months of walking regularly, you may begin to see a significant improvement in your PAD symptoms.

Supervised exercise therapy is recommended three times a week for at least three months. A physical therapist will create a program to build your stamina so that you will be able to walk on a treadmill for an hour.

A typical therapy session might include:

  • Walking on a treadmill until your leg pain becomes too severe
  • Resting until the pain subsides
  • Repeating this pattern for an hour

If walking proves too stressful for your legs, your physical therapist might recommend water therapy and other forms of exercise instead. A stationary bike, an elliptical, or even yoga can help increase blood flow without adding pressure. Working other areas of your body like your core muscles is another good way to promote circulation and lessen painful symptoms of PAD.

If you feel a strain on your heart or head when you're exercising, it could trigger a heart attack or stroke. Stop what you're doing immediately, and avoid exercises that are too strenuous or require extensive footwork, such as dancing.

Your goal with PAD is to get to the point where you can walk for an hour without experiencing too much physical pain. While this may not happen overnight, staying with an exercise regimen will put you on track to long-lasting benefits.