Your legs work hard every day — here's how to keep them healthy

General Wellness
Heart Health
Older people walking a dog in a park.

Walking down the hallway, lifting a heavy bag of groceries, climbing a set of stairs — all of these daily activities (and more) make use of some of the hardest-working parts of your body: your legs.

Considering how hard your legs work every day as you go about your regular routine, it’s important to take care of them. Here’s what you need to know about keeping them healthy.

Get moving

Regular physical activity is a key component of healthy living. Exercise lowers your risk of diseases and helps keep your weight in an ideal range. It’s also one of the best ways to keep your limbs healthy and strong.

Aerobic exercises

Walking, running, biking, swimming and dancing are all types of aerobic exercise, which are also called endurance exercises.

These types of movements work both your arms and legs while also benefiting your heart, lungs and general fitness.

Strength training

Exercises that strengthen the muscles in your arms and legs help you keep or build muscle mass and continue to do daily activities more easily. Strength training exercises cause your muscles to contract and push against a force, like gravity.

Strength training increases your bone strength and improves flexibility in your joints. In addition, strong, healthy leg muscles help you to have better balance, potentially preventing falls.

Exercises to improve strength include lifting weights or using resistance bands. You can also do bodyweight exercises, like squats, calf raises and pushups, to help keep your limbs healthy.

Stretching

Don’t underestimate the benefits of stretching your limbs. Stretching helps prevent muscle soreness and improves flexibility in the joints and muscles of your arms and legs. It also can broaden your range of motion, help lessen stiffness and help decrease your risk of injuries.

4 health issues that affect your limbs

There are four common issues that affect limbs: tendinitis, varicose veins, peripheral artery disease (PAD) and deep vein thrombosis (DVT). Here’s what you need to know about each of them, and what you can do about them:

Tendinitis

That twinge in your elbow as you take a swing in golf — diagnosed as golfer’s elbow. A recurring pain in your shoulder as you swim — diagnosis: swimmer’s shoulder. These diagnoses and others like them (such as tennis elbow and jumper’s knee) are all actually different kinds of tendinitis.

This inflammation of your tendons (the fibers that connect your muscle to bone) typically occurs in your arms and legs. Tendinitis tends to result from repetitive movements, like those seen in tennis and golf. The main symptom of tendinitis is pain at the tendon (usually at a joint).

Treating tendinitis involves:

  • Resting the limb affected and not performing the repetitive motion that causes pain
  • Applying ice to the painful tendon
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) like aspirin, naproxen or ibuprofen
  • Physical therapy (which may also help prevent re-injury)

Varicose veins

Veins that twist and bulge (often in your legs) and sometimes ache or itch may be varicose veins. These veins develop when valves and walls in the blood vessels of your legs weaken. This allows blood to pool and stretch the blood vessels, resulting in varicose veins.

Preventing varicose veins includes exercising and keeping your weight within a healthy range. Still, they are very common and are more likely if you are older, female or have a family history of varicose veins.

Treating your varicose veins can involve:

In many cases, your health care provider may recommend an office-based minimally invasive procedure to address your varicose veins. Procedures, such as ablation and foam sclerotherapy, are readily available and safe.

Peripheral artery disease (PAD)

You may assume that pain in your legs that happens during physical activity — and stops when you stop — is just normal soreness or a sign of aging. "However, it could be a sign of peripheral artery disease (PAD)," says Vincent M. DiGiovanni, DO, a vascular surgeon at Main Line Health.

In PAD, blood flow to your extremities (usually your legs and feet) is reduced due to blockages in your blood vessels. This can also cause symptoms like hair loss on your legs, skin that feels cool to the touch, and sores on your legs that don’t heal.

Preventing and treating PAD looks like:

  • Engaging in regular physical activity
  • Quitting smoking
  • Keeping your blood pressure within a healthy range
  • Taking medications that help prevent clotting and/or lower cholesterol

Peripheral arterial disease can also be addressed through an endovascular procedure that establishes blood flow into your lower legs. Most commonly, this involves a wire and a balloon and is usually done the same day in a procedure known as angioplasty or stenting.

Deep vein thrombosis (DVT)

What if you have a painful, reddened and warm area in your leg after a long flight? It could be a blood clot called a DVT. This is a clot that forms in your deep veins, generally in your legs — though it can also occur in your arms.

You’re at a higher risk of developing a DVT if you have been on bedrest or are sitting still for a prolonged period of time. Your risk may also be higher if you take certain medications (like birth control). Having varicose veins may also increase your risk of vein complications.

You can help prevent DVTs by:

  • Getting up and moving as soon as possible after being confined to a bed
  • Making it a point to get up and walk every hour or two, especially if you sit for long periods of time
  • Wearing compression stockings if you’re going to be sitting for a long while
  • Taking certain medications that help prevent DVTs

It’s important to speak with your health care provider if you think you might have a DVT because it increases your risk of a pulmonary embolism (a clot that travels to your lungs and can be fatal).

"Both pulmonary embolism and deep venous thrombosis can be treated with a catheter-based procedure that removes clot(s) from your body," says Dr. DiGiovanni.

Take care of your arms and legs, and they’ll take care of you

Your limbs keep you moving every day. By keeping them moving with regular physical activity and preventing or treating some common limb health issues, your arms and legs will continue to support you for years to come.

Next steps:

Make an appointment with Vincent M. DiGiovanni, DO
Learn more about heart and vascular care at Main Line Health
Uncovering the complex relationship between PAD and diabetes