It’s 2 a.m., and you’re on your way — for the fourth time — down that well-worn path in the hall to you-know-where. But on this trip, you are waylaid by a cramp in your calf so crippling that you think you’re trapped in some monster nightmare. You try rubbing the muscle, but it feels as tight as a steel cable. You count to 10, or 20. And that works — sort of.
Pregnant women endure a great many discomforts. In addition to having our bladders pressed on and our legs wrenched with cramps, we get backaches, shortness of breath and swollen ankles. We also have trouble sleeping. For many women, simple, frequent stretching may be the answer. While little hard data exist on the effect of stretching on the baby-bearing body, there is plenty of firsthand testament to its merits.
“Pregnant women are not aligned the same way they were before pregnancy,” says Susan Warchaizer, M.D., an obstetrician/gynecologist at Boston Medical Center in Massachusetts. “Limbering up and loosening muscles is probably useful because it makes it easier to carry the excess burden you don’t normally carry.” When muscles are relaxed and flexible, they can handle the weight more comfortably and safely, Warchaizer adds.
The enlargement of the breasts can cause the chest muscles to shorten, especially if the upper-back muscles are not strong, which results in rounded shoulders and back. Calf muscles tend to cramp, some experts believe, because of calcium redistribution or metabolism during pregnancy. The growing uterus can cause a woman’s center of gravity to shift, making balance a bit awkward at times. On top of all this, the placenta produces the hormone relaxin. As the name implies, this hormone relaxes the connections between bones, making it difficult for ligaments and other connective tissue to support certain joints, says Robert E. Berry Jr., M.D., assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston.
Stretching can realign and strengthen muscles and ease the stress and strain on joints during pregnancy. It also can help release tension in the back and alleviate pain in the hamstring muscles.
Five Easy Stretches
These exercises target the muscles most affected by pregnancy — calf and chest, upper and lower back, and hips — and ease common pregnancy discomforts. The exercises can be done in any order, and you can do them postpartum, too.
How to do the stretches:
Hold each stretch to a point of mild tension for about eight to 10 seconds, then release. Repeat each stretch three times. Each time you stretch, go a little farther, as long as you are comfortable and there is no pain. Don’t bounce. Each time you release, take a breath, then exhale as you get back into the stretch.
Frequency: Do this program four to five times per week or whenever you feel the need to stretch. If you’re particularly prone to back pain, you can do both the back and side stretches several times a day. Supplement these stretches with a regular aerobic program such as walking three to five times a week for about 20 minutes. If you currently are strength training, continue doing so for as long as you’re comfortable; you also can use these stretches as a cool-down for your regular workout.
1. Total Back Stretch Stand arm’s distance from a door jamb or pole. Place your hands on either side of the jamb at chest height, arms extended and palms facing in. Feet should be slightly wider than hip-width apart, knees relaxed. Bend knees slowly as you drop your chin toward your chest and round your spine out and up toward the sky, tilting your tailbone under to stretch your back fully. Inhale and “send” the breath into your back. Pull belly inward and away from the jamb at the same time, expanding your back as much as you can. Hold, then exhale, continuing to round your spine up and out of the arch, straightening legs to return to starting position. Stretches back; relieves tension in the back, neck and shoulders.
2. Side Stretch Stand with your right side to a door jamb or pole, and cross your right foot over your left. Keep your legs straight and knees relaxed. Place your right hand on the jamb at shoulder height, elbow bent and left hand on the jamb above your head, left arm straight and shoulders relaxed. Contract the abdominals and begin to pull your body away from the jamb so you feel a stretch on the left side of your torso. When you can’t pull your arms away any farther, bend your knees, and push your left hip out even farther to complete the stretch. Keep abdominals contracted and head aligned with spine. Straighten legs and release. Change position and stretch left side. Stretches back, rear shoulder, side abdominals, upper hip and hip rotators; relieves sciatica and tension in arms, shoulders and lower back.
3. Chest Stretch Stand between two walls, or inside a doorway, in a lunge position with your left foot in front of your right and separated hip-width apart. Place hands and forearms on the walls, or on either side of the door jamb, at chest height, elbows slightly bent. Inhale, then exhale and contract your upper-back muscles, lifting your chest up and out as you bring your shoulder blades together. You’ll feel a stretch across your middle and upper chest. Press slightly forward with your entire body, maintaining an erect position and keeping shoulders relaxed. Hold this position, then relax. Stretches chest and front shoulder; releases tension in neck.
4. Standing Calf Stretch Facing a wall, point toes forward, placing right foot 2 feet from the wall and left foot close to the wall. Keep shoulders and hips square. Place hands and forearms on the wall so your elbows are about shoulder height and shoulder-width apart. Once in position, bend your left knee, moving it forward until it’s over your left ankle; press your hips forward. Feel a stretch in your right calf, keeping your right heel on the floor. Hold this position and release. Switch legs and repeat with your left leg. Stretches the calves, and prevents leg and foot cramps.
5. Seated Hamstring Stretch Sit erect on the floor with your right leg straight in front of you and left leg bent. Bring the sole of the foot toward your groin so you’re comfortable and can sit squarely on both hips. Place a towel around your right heel and hold one end in each hand with your arms extended toward your foot, elbows relaxed. Keep tension on the towel as you lean slightly forward from your hips until you feel a stretch on the underside of your right thigh. Press through your right heel as if to lengthen your leg. At the same time, push your tailbone backward to lengthen your spine. Hold, then release. Repeat with the other leg. As your pregnancy progresses, do the same stretch with your back against a wall for support and a pillow or rolled towel under the thigh of your extended leg. Stretches hamstrings, relieves sciatica and prevents lower-back pain.