Both doctors and patients agree that a regular exercise regimen that is not too strenuous is important when it comes to controlling RLS. Going to extremes is discouraged. Running marathons is not a good idea, but neither is being a couch potato. (1)
That said, what works for you may not work for someone else. Effective exercise regimens can be very individualized. Some RLS sufferers report that doing squats and running up and down stairs before bedtime works for them. Others swear by running in place, and still others think that stretching calf muscles is key. It’s wise to try a variety of different exercises to see exactly what works for you. (2)
The scientific consensus, however, is that strenuous exercise within a few hours of bedtime is a bad idea. According to The New York Times, “Vigorous exercise and stimulation within one to two hours of bed time may worsen restless legs syndrome (RLS). A study found that people who walked briskly for 30 minutes, four times a week, improved minor sleep disturbances after four months. Regular, moderate exercise, healthful in any case, may help prevent RLS. Patients report that either bursts of excessive energy or long sedentary periods worsen symptoms.” (5)
Many experts recommend yoga and Pilates, but advise against extreme types of yoga like Ashtanga, DDP, hot yoga, or any yoga pose that is extremely difficult or stresses the body.
Walking is a recommended exercise almost everyone can do. CNN Health reports, “In one small study, people with RLS were assigned to either an exercise group or a control group. The exercisers walked on a treadmill and did lower-body strength training three days a week for 12 weeks. By the study’s end, their RLS symptoms had decreased significantly. To walk at a moderate pace, aim for three miles per hour or faster, but don’t speed walk.” (3)
Cycling is another activity that can calm symptoms. Most people with RLS also have periodic limb movement of sleep (PLMS)—twitches that occur every 15 to 40 seconds while sleeping. A recent study showed that pedaling a stationary bike three times a week can reduce PLMS at night. To cycle at a moderate pace, aim for 10 miles per hour or slower. (3)
Swimming or doing water aerobics in a warm pool relaxes the muscles. Many RLS sufferers are elderly and may have arthritis or other conditions that keep them from other forms of exercise. Everyone can swim. At the same time, you’re getting a cardio workout that’s good for your overall health. (3)
Simple stretching can help stop RLS symptoms in their tracks. Here are the most helpful stretches from Helpguide.org to help you get started. (4)
- Calf stretch – Stretch out your arms so that your palms are flat against a wall and your elbows are nearly straight. Slightly bend your right knee and step your left leg back a foot or two, positioning its heel and foot flat on the floor. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds. Now bend your left knee while keeping its heel and foot flat on the floor. For a deeper stretch, move your foot back a bit farther. Switch legs and repeat.
- Front thigh stretch – Standing parallel to a wall for balance, grab and pull one of your ankles toward your buttock while keeping the other leg straight. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds. Switch legs and repeat.
- Hip stretch – Place the back of a chair against the wall for support and stand facing the chair. Raise your left foot up and rest it flat on the chair, with your knee bent. (Or try placing your foot on a stair while holding the railing for balance.) Keeping your spine as neutral as possible, press your pelvis forward gently until you feel a stretch at the top of your right thigh. Your pelvis will move forward only a little. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds. Switch legs and repeat.