A home-based walking program helped people with clogged leg arteries walk farther and faster, according to new research. The program was beneficial even 12 months after participants started it.

Supervised exercise can improve walking and lessen the symptoms of peripheral artery disease, but the benefits of a home-based walking program have not been reported.

“The problem with supervised exercise is that it takes many visits to a cardiac rehabilitation center or other exercise facility, and it is not covered by Medicare,” said Mary McGrae McDermott, M.D., lead author and the Jeremiah Stamler professor of medicine at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. “Our results should encourage physicians to recommend walking even if their patients do not have access to a supervised-exercise program.”

Researchers studied two groups of people with PAD. The first included 81 people with PAD who completed a home-based walking program that included support and skill training at weekly meetings, followed by six months of phone calls encouraging their progress, and testing after 12 months.

The second group included 87 people with PAD who completed six months of weekly lectures, then six months of phone calls – both unrelated to exercise – and testing after 12 months.

After six months and again after 12 months, participants did a test that measured how far they could walk in six minutes. From the beginning of the program to the 12-month follow-up, those in the home-based walking program increased their distance from 355.4 to 381.9 meters, an improvement of about 87 feet. Those in the control group decreased their distance from 353.1 to 345.6 meters.

“The results emphasize the importance of recognizing and treating PAD, a common condition that often remains undiagnosed and can become life-threatening as it restricts circulation to the legs, arms, feet, and kidneys,” McDermott said. “Patients with PAD are also at heightened risk for heart attack and stroke.”

According to McDermott, walking is the most effective non-invasive treatment for PAD, but programs must account for the cramp-like pain PAD patients feel when their leg muscles don’t get enough oxygen. By alternating walking and resting, patients can build how long they can walk without pain.

The walking program had people walk at least five days a week, building up to 50 minutes. They were told to rest when their legs hurt and resume walking when their legs were comfortable, McDermott said.

“Don’t think walking problems are a normal part of aging. If you have leg pain, weakness, tingling or other difficulty walking, report it to your doctor and ask about the possibility you may have PAD. Diagnosing PAD is important because therapies can improve your health,” she said.

The research was published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.