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The Ultimate Exercise Plan for Restless Legs

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You may not need drugs after all…

If you have ever had throbbing, pins-and-needles, creepy-crawling or other uncomfortable sensations in your legs while sitting or lying down—especially if they are accompanied by a strong urge to move your legs—then chances are good that you have restless legs syndrome (RLS).

It’s an annoying condition that many people try to cope with on their own in its early stages. But most people with RLS suffer so much that they need more help and often turn to medications, such as ropinirole (Requip) and pramipexole (Mirapex). While these drugs may provide short-term relief, they can actually worsen symptoms in many people who use them long term.

So what’s the solution if you’d rather avoid medication?

Getting regular exercise has been shown to reduce the severity of symptoms by approximately 50%. But it’s crucial that you get the correct type of exercise—and in the correct amounts. For that reason, it’s wise to follow the simple exercise plan in this article, which is specially designed for people with RLS.

THE EXERCISE SOLUTION

With RLS, also known as Willis-Ekborn disease after the doctors who discovered it, the key is to not do too much of any one activity (sitting, standing, walking or even lying in one position) for too long.

Your fitness level will determine your tolerance for physical activity. Recognize your limits and avoid overexertion, which can trigger RLS. Also, don’t sit for more than two hours at a time—get up and walk even if you’re at a movie, in a meeting or traveling.

Research shows that the foundation of an effective RLS exercise plan is a combination of gentle lower-body resistance training (such as gentle lunges and knee bends) as well as moderate aerobic activity (such as walking, cycling or water aerobics).

Aim for 30 minutes at least three days a week—ideally, you should work up to 60 minutes each session. But to truly have the best odds of reducing your RLS symptoms, you also need to do the following exercises, which don’t take long to perform and are carefully selected for the condition.

Important: In some people, exercise can interfere with sleep, so be sure that your workout is at least two hours before bedtime. And stay away from high-impact activities, such as jogging, kickboxing and jumping jacks—these exercises can overtax the leg muscles.

WHAT WORKS FOR RLS

Leg stretches are particularly useful because people with RLS tend to have tight leg muscles, often due to long hours of sitting or standing. These tight muscles (even in the upper legs) limit mobility, increasing risk for RLS discomfort in the lower legs. In addition to walking and resistance training, do the following stretches two or three times a day…

Calf Stretch. What to do: Stand a little less than arm’s length from a wall. Put your palms against the wall, and step your right leg forward with your left leg behind you. Slowly bend your right knee, and press down with your left heel to stretch your left calf. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds. Repeat with the other leg.

Hamstring Stretch. What to do: Lie on the floor on your back, and position yourself near a doorframe. Put your left leg through the doorway, and raise your right leg as high as you comfortably can with your right heel resting against the doorframe. Gently straighten your right leg until you feel a stretch along the back of your right thigh. Hold for about 30 to 60 seconds. Switch legs and repeat.

Quadriceps Stretch. What to do: While standing near a wall in case you need support, raise your right leg and grasp your right ankle behind you. Gently pull your right heel up until you feel a stretch in the front of your right thigh. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds. Repeat with left leg.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELIEF

Exercises that can offer instant relief from an RLS attack…

Ankle Pumps. When your legs bother you, ankle pumps get the blood flowing. These exercises can be done while sitting or while lying on your back in bed or on a couch. What to do: Extend your legs straight in front of your body. Flex your ankles so that your toes point toward your upper body, then point your toes and feet away from your body. Do this 10 or 20 times, every other hour if necessary. If RLS wakes you up at night, do ankle pumps, and you may be able to get back to sleep quickly.

Walking. If ankle pumps don’t provide enough relief within a minute or two, get up and walk at a comfortable pace around the room. This gets your blood flowing even more than ankle pumps. Walking is also rhythmic, which is relaxing and may help you get back to sleep.

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Source: Roger A. Herr, PT, a Seattle–based physical therapist and a director on the board of the American Physical Therapy Association. He has worked in a variety of acute and post-acute care settings in New York, Washington and California. To find a physical therapist near you, go to www.MoveForwardPT.com. Date: April 1, 2013 Publication: Bottom Line Health
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