A group of elderly adults walk outside together.
Just a few minutes of walking each day can improve a kidney dialysis patient’s mind and body. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Improved mental and physical health may just be steps away for people on kidney dialysis, a new study suggests.

A simple program that includes a few minutes of walking a day appears to benefit these patients, a team of Italian researchers concluded.

One kidney disease expert in the United States applauded the new research.

“It is encouraging to see that our minds and bodies can still be adaptable to physical effort,” even when dialysis is needed, said Dr. Maria DeVita, associate chief of nephrology at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

“This program should be immediately implemented in all our patients,” she added. “What’s there to lose? Just do it!”

According to the study authors, prior research has shown that exercise has a positive impact on dialysis patients.

In the new study, researchers led by Dr. Carmine Zoccali wanted to see if that was true for even simple activities, such as walking. Zoccali is from the Institute of Clinical Physiology, National Research Center in Reggio Calabria, Italy.

Their research included 296 dialysis patients who were randomly assigned to either a low-intensity exercise program, or a comparison group who underwent no formal exercise program.

The “low-intensity” regimen included 20 minutes of walking at low-to-moderate speeds every second day, with the intensity gradually increasing over six months.

The average distance covered during a six-minute walking test in the exercise group gradually improved—from about 1,100 feet at the start of the study to 1,200 feet six months later.

In comparison, the group without the exercise program showed no increase in walking distance, the researchers said.

People who did the walking program also improved in what’s known as the “sit-to-stand” test—a standard test designed to assess lower-body strength in older adults.

Mental function also improved significantly in the exercise group compared to the control group, the researchers reported.

The study was published Dec. 1 in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology.

“Poor physical functioning is perhaps the most pervasive and disabling disturbance in patients with advanced kidney disease who are on chronic dialysis,” Zoccali said in a journal news release.

“Our study shows that simple, home-based exercise programs hold potential for improving physical functioning in dialysis patients,” he said.

Dr. Naveed Masani directs outpatient dialysis at Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola, N.Y. He said, “Consistently, in the medical literature, the benefits of exercise in the general population go above and beyond that which we can offer in terms of medications.”

The new study affirms that notion, Masani said, pointing to “a potential benefit on patients who are physically able to perform the (exercise) intervention.”