Turn to Exercise as a Treatment for Restless Legs Syndrome

When restless legs syndrome strikes, get moving to find relief. Find out how one man uses regular, moderate exercise to help keep symptoms at bay.

Michael Haltman exercises nearly every day. He has a regular routine of core strengthening work, cardiovascular exercises, and weight lifting that he uses to stay fit and healthy. But that’s not the only reason he does it.

“It seems to help my restless legs syndrome symptoms when I do exercise,” says Haltman, the 53-year-old owner of a title insurance company in New York. He’s had restless legs syndrome (RLS) for about eight years and has tried to manage it with medications, but without much success.

It makes sense that getting regular exercise would help alleviate the condition’s symptoms, which can include a tingling, bubbly, achy, or creeping sensation that strikes the lower legs (and sometimes feet, thighs, and even arms) when lying in bed at night. These sensations trigger a strong urge to move around or walk.

Haltman doesn’t get total relief from his symptoms and still battles the creepy-crawly, tingly sensations, but he notices a big difference from exercise. “On days when I don’t exercise, symptoms are worse,” says Haltman.

Research shows that exercise can be beneficial as a treatment for restless legs syndrome. A review published in the journal Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment analyzed studies done on the effect of exercise on RLS. The analysis concluded that exercising three days a week, with a combination of lower-body resistance training work and aerobic exercises, helps manage the severity of restless legs syndrome symptoms. It also found that a lack of exercise is a major risk factor for the disease.

RLS Exercise for Emotional Health

Regular exercise not only keeps Haltman healthy but also helps him cope with the challenges of restless legs syndrome, working to ease anxiety and boost energy levels when he’s not sleeping well at night — and there are plenty of anxiety issues when you’re dealing with RLS. What can make the situation even more challenging is that RLS symptoms tend to be worse during periods of emotional stress. Without relief, you can find yourself in a vicious cycle of discomfort creating anxiety, and anxiety creating more discomfort.

Haltman started an RLS support group in his area a few years ago. Not only did it help him find comfort, the group also helped the other members, many of whom thought that they were the only ones who had restless legs syndrome. Because the condition isn’t well known, it can be hard to get support from people without restless legs.

“People who don’t have it make you feel like you’re whiny or a complainer,” says Haltman, “It’s not a big-name disease, and even though it’s debilitating for those who have it, it’s tough for other people to understand.”

RLS Relief: A Combination of Treatments

To battle his RLS symptoms, Haltman uses a variety of approaches. If RLS sensations start when he’s working at his desk, he applies pressure to the legs by doing isometric exercises as well as regular stretches and flex-and-release movements on the areas that are troubling him.

At night, Haltman takes a very hot shower when his restless legs syndrome starts acting up. To sleep, he often finds that the most comfortable position is with his back on the floor and his legs resting on the bed.

“That position provides relief because it helps calm the nerves in the legs and drains the legs of fluids,” explains Benjamin Snider, ND, a naturopathic doctor and co-founder of the Serona Centre in Ontario, Canada.

He also recommends rebounding — jumping on a mini-trampoline — for 15 minutes in the morning and again at night to ease symptoms. You can work out on a stationary bike or elliptical machine to get a similar movement.

“Any form of exercise would be great,” says Dr. Snider, “but I like swimming over running because it has less impact on legs and hips.” He suggests slowly scaling in exercise if you’re not in very good shape — start slowly and practice gentle, low-impact exercises to avoid injuring yourself and straining your joints, causing pain on top of your restless legs syndrome.

Snider highly recommends regular yoga or another gentle stretching routine. “I find even walking in bare feet on grass is really grounding and excellent for restless legs syndrome,” he says. “Something as simple as that, which you don’t need any equipment for, has a really soothing effect for some patients.”

By Diana Rodriguez