Keep Walking to Reduce Vascular Disease Symptoms

By Dr. Aditya Rachakonda

If you or a loved one is older, it’s sensible to stay home during the pandemic. But let’s face it, staying home usually leads to inactivity.

If you have vascular disease, inactivity means you aren’t keeping up the walking program that’s the mainstay of most treatment. Today, as the older population self-confines in their homes, vascular surgeons across the country are noting with concern that patients are no longer properly managing their disease through walking. That increases the risk of complications.

So how do you keep active while staying home? Read on for helpful tips that’ll get you walking at home – and maybe even enjoying it – while keeping symptoms at bay.

So what is vascular disease?

Your blood flows through two main kinds of pipes: arteries and veins. Arteries deliver blood to the cells of your body. Veins collect the blood from all body points and bring it back to your heart. Vascular disease affects the arteries or veins.

The most common form of vascular disease affects the arteries and is called atherosclerosis. A build-up of plaque in the arteries’ inner walls causes them to narrow, which results in diminished blood flow. This condition often leads to peripheral artery disease, which involves diminished blood flow to the muscles of your legs. Because your leg muscles are being starved of nourishment, you feel pain when you walk.

Other types of vascular disease affect your veins. If you have venous insufficiency disease or venous reflux disease, the valves of your leg veins have become leaky. As a result, blood doesn’t move back up your leg toward your heart the way it should. Instead, it pools or even flows backwards.

Another condition that affects the veins, called peripheral edema, involves the chronic retention of fluid in leg tissues. Both conditions cause leg pain and chronic swelling.

The standard treatment for all these conditions is not surgery. It is walking. Why is walking so effective in stabilizing vascular disease?

Let’s say you have a blockage in your leg artery. When you walk, your leg muscles feel tired from lack of blood. However, if you keep walking, that tiredness triggers your brain to prune the dysfunctional arteries and grow brand-new channels for blood flow called collateral branches. Picture driving on a road and suddenly being stopped by an obstruction. You can’t keep going straight. But there are detours – side roads – that let you reach your destination.

In order for your brain to trigger the creation of new pathways for the blood, your walking regimen must be consistent – at least five days a week for a minimum of 30 minutes each time, preferably on something hard, like concrete.

But how can you walk five days a week for 30 minutes in your home? Here are strategies that have the “Seal of Approval” of my patients with vascular disease, people who are mostly 65 and up and currently self-isolating. (A 95-year-old patient walks at home every day and she’s in better cardiovascular health than some patients in their 60s.)

  • Use a treadmill. Listen to music as you walk and the beat will make you want to move.
  • Use a stationary bike. Position it near the TV and have your remote handy.
  • Buy a fitness watch that tracks your steps. Wear it (they look cool – your grandkids will be impressed!) while you walk “laps” around your house. You’ll enjoy the way your watch keeps track of how much you’re doing, and motivates you to stick to your plan.
  • Use a fitness app on your cellphone that guides you through small activities and easy exercises while keeping track of your progress. Get set to be impressed by your own achievements.
  • Set the timer on your cellphone and take a walk around your home. Think of a pleasant or funny memory connected with each room as you walk through it.
  • If you’re sitting at a table or desk for long periods, take five or 10-minute walk every two hours.
  • When sitting, keep your legs elevated.
  • If you have chronic leg swelling, keep your leg elevated while you watch a TV show (say 25 minutes). Or set a timer and elevate your leg for that period. The goal is to walk and keep the affected leg elevated for specific periods of time during each day.

This next tip is extremely important to your health if you’re living with vascular disease: Keep seeing your doctor, whether in person, on the phone or through telemedicine. You will figure out a game plan together for maintaining your walking.  

Skipping doctor’s appointments can lead to hazardous outcomes. Please know that the care and safety of our community during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is Northern Westchester Hospital’s top priority. We have put maximum safety measures in place to prevent exposure to the coronavirus for anyone who comes to the hospital for emergent or scheduled care.

Learn about what we are doing to keep you safe and what to expect if you need care by visiting www.northwell.edu/coronavirus.

Dr. Aditya Rachakonda is a vascular and endovascular surgeon at Northern Westchester Hospital.

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