Weight training can help people with peripheral arterial disease (PAD) get back on their feet, exercise researchers have found.

Interval walking is the current gold standard for improving the painful symptoms of PAD and halting the disease’s progression. But many people with the disease don’t follow their prescribed walking routine due to excruciating cramps that are only relieved with rest. 

In an attempt to circumvent that problem, exercise therapists at the University of New South Wales, Australia, tested a program of weight training, exercising muscles that aren’t affected by restricted blood flow. Their trial and a meta-analysis recently showed that weight training allowed patients to avoid cramps altogether during exercise sessions.

“It was effective at improving all forms of walking – both graded treadmill and flat ground walking,” said Belinda Parmenter, Ph.D., AED. “It improved how far someone could walk before the pain kicked in, and their total walking distance.”

Weight training also may help clinicians unveil hidden heart disease during cardiac testing, Parmenter said. PAD sufferers avoid exertion, “so we don’t ever get to see how the heart is coping under higher loads,” she explained. “Once they can work a bit harder, we often end up diagnosing heart disease and can intervene before it’s too late.”

The study was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.