There is no doubt that exercise can reduce stress, improve sleep, and satisfy our brains with feel-good endorphins––all of which help with migraine. Regular exercise is especially important to keep the sensitive “migraine brain” happy. The steady dose of protective brain chemicals, including a boost of anti-inflammatory ones, is thought to raise the threshold against migraine.
Some studies show that exercise is so beneficial, it can be more effective than relaxation therapies and as good as doctor-prescribed preventive medicines.
But if the relationship between exercise and migraine is so valuable for reducing headaches, why do 38% of those with migraine experience exercise-induced attacks? And how can we safely incorporate exercise into our routines?
Exercise And Migraine: The Brain and The Body
Exercise is a natural way to reduce headache severity and frequency. The research has been clear: high-intensity interval training has been linked to fewer migraine days, but moderate endurance exercises such as jogging work too. Even walking and gentle movement have benefits. Anything you can do to get your body moving is good for migraine prevention, potentially reducing your need for medication. Exercise is also effective at boosting mood and energy levels after a migraine attack, helping you shake off postdrome weariness.
However, exercise could trigger a migraine attack if the body is pushed out of homeostasis and can’t readjust. Some theories about the mechanisms behind exercise-induced attacks include:
- Increased blood pressure during exercise
- Rapidly changing blood pressure due to the Valsalva maneuver––essentially, holding your breathing while straining, which frequently occurs while strength training
- Increased lactate levels from exercise and the body’s inability to break down lactic acid efficiently
- Dehydration from exercise
- Exercise may trigger neuropeptides (brain molecules) like calcitonin, a gene-related peptide (CGRP), which is a chemical known to be involved in generating migraine attacks.
Safely Build Your Exercise Routine
Set goals. The generally accepted guideline is that you can reduce your headache frequency with as little as three days a week of 30 minutes of aerobic activity.
Make it fun. Pick something that will give you pleasure: brisk walking, gardening, yoga, dancing, kayaking, hiking, cycling, or swimming. Enjoying your exercise is key to maintaining a routine.
Start slow––and then challenge yourself. Start conservatively and build on what you can do, a little at a time. If you can do three minutes, move to four minutes, and celebrate yourself for building your exercise regimen! Try this:
- If you haven’t moved at all in a while, sit upright and do a minute of gentle stretching.
- If you feel like you could run, start with walking.
- If you’re already running and feel you can do more, add five minutes.
If anything prompts an attack, then you’ve found your limit and can dial back the intensity. Listen to your body.
Be consistent. Migraine loves a schedule. It doesn’t like a lot of variation in intensity or frequency. It prefers a moderate amount every day. Build up the habit of exercise in your life.
Don’t forget strength training. Working with light weights or bands once or twice a week builds up core muscles to improve posture and alignment.
Food and drink. Dehydration is a common headache trigger. Drink water one to two hours before working out, and keep drinking during and after your workout. Skipping meals is also a migraine trigger, so make sure you’ve had some nourishment. If you need a little energy boost before exercise, try an energy bar, dates, or bananas.
Pick your best location. Gyms are wonderful places for cardio and strength training, but the music, lights, and noise may be triggers for migraine. Consider home workouts or exercising outside. Don’t forget to bring sunglasses or a hat with a brim on days with bright sun to minimize another potential trigger.
Warm-up and cool down. The migraine brain doesn’t like sudden changes in the body, so ease in and out of your workout. Start with a warmup of 10 to 15 minutes, including some stretching, and end with some cool-down cardio time to gradually lower blood pressure and heart rate, and work the lactic acid out of your muscles.
Consider preemptive meds before exercise. If, after the above adaptations, exercise continues to bring on reliable attacks, taking a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory one or two hours before exercise is often beneficial.
Exercise is a fantastic treatment for migraine and the relationship between exercise and migraine is typically positive if done right. Whether you are a newbie to exercise or a diehard fitness buff, every bit counts for your well-being. Embrace an exercise routine and enjoy that sense of accomplishment.