Simple arm exercises could help beat peripheral vascular disease

Scientists at Sheffield Hallam University have discovered that simple arm exercises could help beat a crippling leg condition that affects one in twenty people over 55 in the UK.

The team, along with staff at the University of Sheffield, has found that upper body aerobic exercise can help the battle against peripheral vascular disease (PVD), a blood circulation problem, which causes severe leg pain and leaves patients struggling to walk even short distances.

This is the first large-scale trial of its kind to show that a regular workout of the upper body can help ease the chronic leg pain associated with PVD. The British Heart Foundation-funded study found that exercising the upper body by 'arm-cranking', stationary cycling using the arms, improved cardiovascular fitness over a 24-week period and enabled patients to walk for longer without experiencing pain.

The findings are a boost for patients with PVD, who can find even moderate walking exercise difficult and may require surgery in severe cases.

More than a hundred patients with PVD aged between fifty and 85 were recruited from the Sheffield Vascular Institute at the Northern General Hospital.

Pain tolerance levels were measured in a series of walking tests at six-weekly intervals and the total improvements were calculated at the end of the 24 weeks. The average maximum walking distance increased by nearly a third (29 %), equal to an extra one hundred metres. Patients could also walk for fifty per cent longer before the onset of leg pain.

John Saxton, from Sheffield Hallam University's Centre for Sport and Exercise Science, which conducted the study with the University of Sheffield's School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, said:

"The cardiovascular function and walking ability of the patients with PVD who took part in the arm exercise programme both improved. The onset of leg pain was delayed during walking, and they were able to push themselves further beyond the pain barrier to achieve improvements in maximum tolerable walking distance. Our results suggest that a combination of physiological changes and an increase in exercise pain tolerance account for the observed improvement in walking ability.”

"The advantage of exercising the arms for patients with PVD is that they don't generally encounter pain during this type of physical activity. This can help to increase their motivation and enthusiasm for exercise. A reduced level of physical activity potentially contributes to subsequent disability and increases the risk of cardiovascular problems occurring."

Peripheral vascular disease occurs when the arteries narrow or become blocked with fatty material. The artery can become so narrow that it can't deliver enough oxygen-containing blood to the legs during walking exercise. This results in leg pain known as intermittent claudication and forces the person to stop and rest until it passes.

Smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure and a poor diet are high risk factors.

The study was recently published in the Journal of Vascular Surgery, a leading international scientific journal for this field of research.

Sheffield Hallam University

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