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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.