Help Guide, a nonprofit source of health information, reports that one in 10 people suffer from restless leg syndrome, or RLS, and yet much of the medical community is not educated on this serious neurological disorder.
Exercise is often suggested as a method of relieving RLS symptoms, but some people find that exercise makes the symptoms worse. Experts suggest several reasons this might be true.
Restless Legs and the Brain
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, an agency of the National Institutes of Health, defines restless leg syndrome as a neurological disorder. Sufferers feel sensations in their legs they describe with words, such as pressure, tingling, prickling or creeping. These feelings may range from annoying to disabling. Movement brings relief, but often only for a few seconds. The condition is typically worse at night and interferes with restful sleep.
Read more: Positive and Negative Effects of Exercise
Movement vs. Relaxation
The symptoms of RLS tend to disappear with movement and come back during relaxation. People with restless legs syndrome have the unpleasant sensations disappear during their exercise sessions only to come back after exercise is finished. It may feel like the symptoms are worse, but they may seem worse only by comparison to their absence. People may also be less active after exercise as they rest, and the lower level of muscle activity makes the symptoms worse.
Time of Day
Restless leg syndrome is worse at night — often showing up with periodic limb movement disorder (PLMB), which the National Sleep Foundation explains involves repetitive jerking or cramping of the legs — often showing no symptoms at all in the morning. People who exercise in the late afternoon or evening may be exercising during the symptom activity threshold by coincidence. RLS symptoms seem to start after exercise, but in reality would have had the same onset of sensations if they hadn't exercised.
Dopamine Levels and RLS
The causes of restless leg syndrome are not well understood by the medical community, but evidence points to reduced levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Although exercise can increase dopamine levels, which is why moderate exercise is an effective therapy for restless leg syndrome, very intense exercise can have the opposite effect. ACE Fitness reports that OTS — overtraining syndrome —contributes to restless sleep or insomnia due to the release of epinephrine. This stress hormone will not only keep you agitated, but sap you of the rest you need.
Exercise and Restless Legs
Regular, moderate exercise is an important treatment for RLS. If exercise seems to be making the symptoms worse, try reducing the intensity of your workouts to see if you are over-training. If that doesn't help, it may be beneficial to move your exercise earlier in the day or trying to stay active after workout sessions. Caffeine, tobacco and alcohol have been shown to contribute to RLS symptoms so reducing or eliminating these should help. Consult your doctor about dietary changes to correct deficiencies in iron says Harvard Health, folic acid or magnesium.
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: "Restless Legs Syndrome Fact Sheet"
- Help Guide: "Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS)"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Are You Missing This Simple Treatment for Restless Legs?"
- National Sleep Foundation: " Periodic Limb Movements Disorder Image Periodic Limb Movements Disorder"
- ACE Fitness: "Overtraining | 9 Signs of Overtraining to Look Out For"