Writer: Kristin Harmel, email@example.com
Source: Christine Stopka, (352) 392-0584
GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- When 71-year-old Verton Gay first went to the Lifetime Cardiac Rehab Center in Ocala, Fla.,he had just undergone bypass surgery followed by back surgery, and walking was causing him excruciating pain. It seemed he would have to give up living a life he was familiar with.
At the rehab center, he found a new program developed by University of Florida researcher Christine Stopka. Today, Gay walks normally and in fact spends 40 minutes a day on a treadmill.
"I'm still working a half-day every day," he said. "The other half, I do gardening and work in my workshop. I'm always active."
He is not alone. Similar programs are in place throughout Florida and as far away as Israel.
Gay credits his recovery to UF researchers who have found a virtually pain-free way to increase the average walking distance of patients with inadequate blood flow to their legs by an average of 460 percent. That's more than twice the national average for similar treatments, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. "Think how we could change the way people exercise and feel about themselves," said Stopka, a professor in UF's department of exercise and sport sciences.
Stopka has been conducting research since 1991 with patients who suffer from intermittent claudication, the development of pain in the legs due to inadequate blood flow. The method her team of researchers tested differs from the method generally accepted in the medical community.
"We're really trying to open some eyes here to the fact that this really is a neat approach and there really is a change," Stopka said.
Intermittent claudication often is treated with an exercise program that requires patients to walk until they are in pain, rest for a moment until the pain subsides slightly and then walk again, despite the pain. UF radiology Professor Katherine Scott, who worked with Stopka to test the metabolic changes in the participants, said the intense pain leads to a tremendous dropout rate among patients who need the treatment.
"Our woman patients say that the pain of exercising past the threshold of pain is as intense as giving birth," said Scott, a senior research career scientist at Gainesville's Veterans Administration Medical Center. "No normal human being wants to push himself to this excrutiating pain three times a week for the rest of his life."
Stopka has implemented a program that is virtually pain-free, and during the past six years, UF researchers have trained 49 participants for an average of 9.4 weeks each.
In Stopka's program, patients participate in low-intensity treadmill walking. They begin at about 1 mph and slowly have the tread speed increased as they walk. At the first sign of pain, the speed is reduced as needed until the patient feels the pain subside, and then the speed is increased until the patient feels a tightness or pain again.
"Other programs are just doing the same things that are causing the pain to begin with," Stopka said. "They are walking too fast for the available blood flow, which leads to painful symptoms. I'm trying to show that we can exercise these folks efficiently and with a lot less pain by using a lower endurance approach."
Stopka's program will be particularly important in the next few years. By 2000, 20 to 25 percent of the U.S. population will be classified as senior citizens; of those, 10 to 20 percent will suffer from peripheral vascular disease, one of the leading causes of intermittent claudication, Stopka said.
Stopka's study has been published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness as well as Palaestra, a journal for people with disabilities. She currently is awaiting metabolic data on the patients from her most recent trial.
Stopka said she hopes to start training programs for patients throughout the country as soon as possible. "Obviously, the motivational benefits invite serious consideration, but so do our data," Stopka said. "I think there will be a lot of people smiling."
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