As a result, they can walk farther than if they don't have an arm workout, says researcher Diane Treat-Jacobson, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota School of Nursing in Minneapolis.
"Particularly for PAD patients who are quite disabled, walking can be difficult," she tells WebMD. "Arm aerobics may offer a better option than traditional workouts on a treadmill."
Exercise Improves Cardiopulmonary Fitness
In people with PAD, there is poor blood flow in the arteries other than those of the heart and brain, limiting the supply of oxygen-rich blood to the muscles, particularly in the legs. The most common cause is plaque buildup. Starved for oxygen, the leg muscles cramp and begin hurting after people walk even short distances. The pain typically goes away after a few minutes of rest. In severe cases of PAD, this leg pain (called claudication) occurs at rest.
Earlier studies have shown that walking on a treadmill helps people with PAD to walk farther. "But we thought it was a local effect; exercising the muscles around the blockage allows them to use oxygen more efficiently," Treat-Jacobson says.
The new study, the first to pit treadmill training against arm aerobics, suggests that exercise has a systemic effect, improving overall cardiovascular function and fitness, she says.
Arm Workouts Get People Moving
The researchers studied 35 people with PAD whose average age was 67. They were randomly divided into four different groups: no exercise; treadmill exercise; arm exercise; and both treadmill and arm exercises.
For their arm workouts, the people used an arm ergometer -- a tabletop device with bicycle-like pedals that are operated by the arms.
The people in the exercise groups worked out for an hour, three times a week for 12 weeks. After three months of training, people in all three exercise groups could walk about one and a half blocks farther without pain. And once they rested, they kept on going: About two to three blocks farther than before.
"The improvements were comparable in all three exercise groups," Treat-Jacobson says. "For people with PAD who are frail, this may be a better option."
The findings were presented here at the American Heart Association's (AHA) annual meeting.
Statins Also Get People With PAD Walking
Another study, also presented at the meeting Tuesday, shows that cholesterol-lowering statin drugs also enable people with PAD to walk farther without pain.
AHA President Ray Gibbons, MD, professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., says both studies are noteworthy, suggesting novel ways to relieve symptoms in people with PAD.
"Many of these people are very limited in their physical abilities, particularly if they have other health problems. So having other options are important," he tells WebMD.
All people with PAD should be on statin drugs anyway, Gibbons stresses, as the drugs have been shown to reduce their risk of stroke, heart attack, and death.
PAD affects more than 8 million Americans, including about 20% of people 65 and older.