Hot water therapy works just as well as supervised exercise to improve blood flow and functional walking ability in those with peripheral arterial disease, according to a small new study.

Due to restricted blood flow, those with PAD often experience pain, functional disability, and related atherosclerotic disease, which can increase over time. The disease is traditionally treated with exercise therapy, but many patients don’t follow their prescribed routine, the researchers noted. Hot water spa bathing, which has been found to improve cardiovascular outcomes, might be an alternative option, they hypothesized.

Participants included 22 men and women in their seventies. Two study cohorts either bathed in a spa at ∼39°C, 3-5 days per week followed by up to 30 minutes of callisthenics, or participated in supervised walking and gym exercises for 90 minutes, 1-2 days per week. They were tested in functional walking ability, stress-induced changes in tissue oxygenation, resting blood pressure, quality of life, vascular function, and blood volume before and after a 12-week intervention. In response to both programs, walking distance increased, diastolic blood pressure and mean arterial pressure were reduced, and systolic blood pressure was lowered more with heat therapy than with exercise.

Notably, adherence to heat therapy was “excellent,” the authors stated. “These findings indicate that heat therapy may be a useful alternative form of cardiovascular conditioning for individuals with PAD,” wrote lead author Ashley Akerman, Ph.D., of the University of Otago, New Zealand.

Read the study