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Lifestyle Changes for Lower Extremity Arterial Disease

Eating healthfully and exercising regularly can decrease your risk of developing lower extremity arterial disease. These habits can also help prevent the condition from returning if you’ve already been treated for it.

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Certain health habits and related medical problems can stress the heart, such as smoking, obesity, high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and uncontrolled diabetes. All can lead to a buildup of plaque in leg arteries, which is the leading cause of lower extremity arterial disease. Plaque is a waxy substance composed of fat, cholesterol, calcium, and other materials in the blood. 

If you receive a diagnosis of lower extremity arterial disease, NYU Langone doctors may recommend the following changes to prevent the condition from progressing and improve the health of your arteries.

Quitting Smoking

If you smoke, stopping is one of the best ways to prevent or halt the progression of lower extremity arterial disease. The chemicals in cigarettes harm blood cells and blood vessels, increasing the risk of plaque buildup in the arteries.

When coupled with high blood pressure, obesity, unhealthy cholesterol levels, or uncontrolled diabetes, smoking puts you at even greater risk of developing lower extremity arterial disease and its most serious complications, including the loss of a leg. NYU Langone offers Tobacco Cessation Programs, which can help you quit. 

Improving Diet and Cholesterol

Elevated levels of blood cholesterol can lead to full or partial blockage of the arteries. Researchers are still determining the ideal balance of “good” and “bad” cholesterol. “Good,” or high-density lipoprotein (HDL), cholesterol is found in monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil. “Bad,” or low-density lipoprotein (LDL), cholesterol is found in trans- and saturated fats, such as margarine. What is known is that a nutritious diet and a healthy weight can help reduce cholesterol levels. 

NYU Langone doctors may suggest adding more colorful fruits and vegetables, as well as sources of lean protein, to your diet to keep cholesterol levels in check. They may also recommend limiting or omitting fried foods, sugary desserts, heavy creams and dressings, and fatty cuts of meat. 

One possible benefit of making better dietary choices is weight loss. If your cholesterol levels need improvement, you are overweight, and you find it difficult to lose weight, our Weight Management Program may be able to help.

Exercising Regularly

Regular exercise improves the health of your arteries in several ways. First, it lowers bad cholesterol and boosts good cholesterol, which can reduce plaque buildup in arteries. It also increases the production of nitric oxide, a molecule that helps dilate the arteries and improve blood pressure in the cells that line the arteries, enhancing circulation. Exercise helps control the symptoms of diabetes, high blood pressure, and even stress, which can worsen high blood pressure—one of the leading causes, along with plaque buildup, of lower extremity arterial disease. 

Studies show that just 30 minutes of brisk walking daily can have a big impact on arterial health. Your NYU Langone doctor can offer advice on how to start an exercise routine or incorporate more physical activity into your life. 

When lower extremity arterial disease occurs at the same time as other heart or lung conditions, doctors at Rusk Rehabilitation may be able to prescribe a cardiovascular rehabilitation program of walking and exercise to improve the health of your arteries.

Reducing Blood Pressure

High blood pressure, also called hypertension, stresses the heart, lungs, brain, kidneys, and blood vessels. Over time, this can lead to organ and tissue damage, heart disease, or stroke. Hypertension frequently indicates that there is plaque buildup in the arteries, so NYU Langone doctors monitor your blood pressure closely if you have any additional symptoms—such as pain in your legs—that may indicate you have lower extremity arterial disease.

Blood pressure readings include two numbers. The top number, called the systolic blood pressure, measures the pressure in arteries when the heart beats. The bottom number, called the diastolic blood pressure, measures the pressure in arteries when the heart is resting. Blood pressure is considered high when the systolic reading is more than 140 mmHg or the diastolic reading is more than 90 mmHg, or both. In prehypertension, the precursor to hypertension, the systolic pressure falls between 120 to 139 mmHg or the diastolic pressure measures 80 to 89 mmHg. 

If you have high blood pressure, a NYU Langone doctor may recommend monitoring your blood pressure regularly—at home and in his or her office—and making lifestyle changes, such as eating healthfully, exercising regularly, reducing your consumption of salt and alcohol, and quitting smoking.

Managing Stress

Stress affects blood pressure. When you are under too much stress, your heart and other organs are forced to work harder. If you have hypertension, the condition may worsen. Excessive daily stress can also lead to unhealthy habits, such as smoking, drinking, and overeating. 

If you have lower extremity arterial disease, our doctors advise finding ways to manage stress. This might involve meditating, getting plenty of sleep, and engaging in yoga or other calming activities. Your doctor can help you learn how to better handle stress.

Controlling Diabetes

People with uncontrolled diabetes are prone to blockages in the arteries of the lower leg. This may lead to inadequate blood flow to the legs and feet. If the foot tissue has insufficient blood flow, minor scratches, cracks, or abrasions in the skin may not heal. These wounds may become enlarged and infected, which can lead to gangrene, or tissue death. 

Managing diabetes helps prevent lower extremity arterial disease. If you have the condition, specialists at NYU Langone can offer guidance on home glucose monitoring, weight loss, and insulin injections.  

Making lifestyle changes is the first step in stopping and even reversing the symptoms of lower extremity arterial disease. If the condition has already progressed, or if lifestyle changes alone do not alleviate symptoms, NYU Langone doctors may prescribe medication or recommend surgery.

Our Research and Education in Lower Extremity Arterial Disease

Learn more about our research and professional education opportunities.