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Combat night cramps and blood clots with exercise: stretch and strengthen your calves to decrease cramping and boost circulation.

Night cramps are common in seniors: You may be familiar with the often intense pain that accompanies the sudden, involuntary spasm in your calf muscles. Robert Turner, PT, OCS, a board-certified orthopedic specialist and clinical supervisor at the Spine Therapy Center at the Weill Cornell-affiliated Hospital for Special Surgery, points to tight calf muscles as a possible trigger. "Most people have tight calves, whether they stand, sit, or walk all day," he observes.

According to Turner, regularly stretching your calves during the day can help prevent leg cramps and spasms that wake you up at night. "After all, if you do get a cramp, your body is smarter than you are," he quips. "The first thing that happens when you get a night cramp is you either flex your foot or you jump up and move around--both of which stretch the calves. Preventive calf stretching could help reduce these episodes." The fact that the exercises in our Moves of the Month also can help you achieve longer-looking, yet strong and flexible, calf muscles should be added incentive.

Self-Help for Night Cramps

It's not clear what causes cramps, but they seem to be linked to dehydration and excess alcohol consumption, as well as medical conditions like diabetes and thyroid disease, and decreased potassium levels. Certain medications are also implicated, including cholesterol-lowering statins, calcium channel blockers and diuretics (used to treat high blood pressure), and some antipsychotic drugs. Speak to your doctor if you take any of these medications, as you may be able to switch to one that's doesn't cause cramps.

Along with our exercises, self-help measures you can try include drinking plenty of water, avoiding high heels, and sleeping with your feet flexed (avoid tight bedding, which may trap your feet in a toes-pointed position). Eating foods rich in potassium, such as bananas, tomatoes and beans, also may help--but if you take medication for high blood pressure, check with your doctor before increasing your potassium consumption, as some blood pressure medications can cause it to build up in your system.

If you frequently get leg cramps or cramping continues despite stretching your calves, see your doctor to help determine the cause.

Curb the Risk of DVT

Another benefit of regular calf stretching is that it promotes better circulation in the legs. Poor circulation increases the risk for deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a blood clot that forms in the lower leg or thigh. Although DVT is most common in seniors, it can happen at any age. If a clot breaks off and moves through the bloodstream, it can get stuck in the brain, lungs, or heart, causing severe damage.

How Strengthening Helps

Most of us need to stretch our calves, and if you are sedentary and inactive, you should strengthen them as well. "The pumping action you get from activities such as walking or going up and down on your toes also promotes circulation," Turner says. "These activities keep blood from pooling in the legs, and help prevent clot formation and swelling."


Two exercises to strengthen and stretch your calves

CALF STRETCH                        HEEL RAISES

* Stand with your arms extended     * Stand tall in front of a
  forward at shoulder level,          sturdy chair, countertop,
  hands pressing against a wall.      or wall for balance
* Take a step back with your
  right foot, keeping both feet     * Raise your heels by
  facing directly forward.            pushing up onto your
                                      toes, and hold for one
* Press into the heel of              second at the top.
  your right foot, keeping
  your right leg straight as        * Slowly lower yourself
  you bend your left leg.             down until your heels
  Hold for 30 seconds.                touch the floor.

* Switch legs and repeat.           * Do three sets of 10 heel
                                      raises daily.
* Do twice for each leg,
  two to three times daily.
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Title Annotation:BODYWORKS
Publication:Women's Nutrition Connection
Date:Feb 1, 2017
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