Best Exercise for People with Migraines

September 5th, 2020

You already know that exercise is good for you. Thousands of studies, big and small, have outlined the physical and mental benefits of moving the body to increase the heart rate and burn calories.

For example, regular physical activity can protect you against countless health conditions, like anxiety and depression, type 2 diabetes, stroke, heart disease, and many types of cancer. At least 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise, or 75 minutes per week of vigorous physical activity, can also help you feel more energized, sleep better, and even boost your sex life. That is unless you suffer from exercise-induced migraines.

Does exercising trigger migraines?

Although we are well-aware of the health benefits of exercising regularly, it’s not always sunshine and rainbows when you are a migraine sufferer trying to live a healthy, active lifestyle. Unfortunately, exercise can trigger migraines and headaches in some people, especially vigorous or high-intensity activities.

There are at least a couple of theories on what causes exercise-induced headaches. One is that intense physical activity dilates blood vessels in the brain, triggering an inflammatory response that can translate into headaches for those with over-excitable pain receptors. Another possibility is that other triggers, such as light and sound sensitivity, hot weather, and dehydration – and not the act of exercising itself – may play a bigger role in exercise migraines than we thought.

Some research studies have looked into the relationship between exercise and migraines with varying results. An analysis looking at the prevalence of exercise-induced migraines among 1207 headache patients found that physical activity was a triggering factor for 22.1 percent of the participants. A smaller study conducted among 129 New Zealand students suggested that 9 percent suffered from headaches after a vigorous workout.

How exercise may help migraines

While some migraine-prone individuals may experience headaches during or after a workout, regular exercise can, ironically, also reduce the frequency and severity of headaches and migraines. That is one of the reasons why people call exercising “nature’s painkiller.” When you are physically active, your body releases endorphins.

Endorphins are the ‘feel-good’ chemicals responsible for that pleasurable sensation you feel after doing something you quite enjoy, like eating a decadent piece of chocolate cake or have a good belly laugh. They are also behind for that pleasantly relaxed feeling you get after working out or the so-called “runner’s high” that keeps you going long after your legs are singing a different tune.

Endorphins act on opiate receptors in your brain to boost pleasure and reduce pain signals. Some studies have even shown that regular exercise and relaxation techniques such as mindfulness meditation can reduce the frequency of migraines just as effectively as topiramate, a prescription medication used to prevent them.

Best exercises to try if you get migraines

Yoga

Research shows that people who do yoga as an add-on migraine therapy have fewer and sometimes less intense headaches. A research study published recently in the peer-reviewed journal Neurology with 160 participants found that doing yoga yielded a significant reduction in headaches frequency, duration, and intensity.

Tai Chi

An ancient mind-body practice often described as “meditation in motion,” tai chi is a gentle, low-impact form of exercise that has been shown to improve flexibility, strength, and balance, which are important if you experience vestibular symptoms. A randomized controlled trial published in the Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine Journal showed significant positive health effects after 15 weeks of bi-weekly, hour-long tai chi sessions, including reducing the prevalence of headaches.

Walking

Walking is probably one of the most underrated exercises, but research shows that doing something so simple as just placing one foot in front of the other can be just as good a workout – if not better – than running and other more intense forms of exercise. While running, swimming, and cycling are more physically demanding, walking is just as effective for improving your cardiovascular health, burning calories, and improving circulation.

If you are prone to exercise-induced headaches but still want to get your daily dose of sweat, walking is a great option. A good start is to take a short 10 to 15-minute walk every day and gradually increase the pace and duration, always paying attention to and avoiding any potential triggers. The most important thing is to make sure you listen to your body and avoid overexerting yourself, as that can also trigger a migraine.

Also, when working out, always make sure to:

  • Avoid exercising in hot, humid environments
  • Always warm-up and cool down
  • Stay hydrated