How Exercise Helps Your Migraines

Young Woman Stretching Legs In The Park After Exercise

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Exercise contributes to your overall health and well-being. It also is a proven way to reduce the number of headaches you get per month and also the intensity of these migraines. This is welcome news for many migraine sufferers. 

This article explains what a migraine is, how exercise can alleviate head pain, and how to prevent migraines before and during exercise. It also provides some forms of exercise that you can try.

What Is a Migraine?

The Cleveland Clinic defines a migraine as “a common neurological disease that causes a variety of symptoms, most notably a throbbing, pulsing headache on one side of your head.” Migraines can be exacerbated by bright lights, sleep deprivation, hormones, stress, loud sounds or specific smells, and certain foods. It can last for hours or even days.

According to the American Migraine Foundation (AMF), a non-profit organization devoted to advancing research and awareness about migraines, those who suffer from migraines don’t merely have a slight headache. Instead, it is a “disabling condition that impacts more than 39 million men, women, and children in the United States.”

How Can Working Out Alleviate Migraines?

Choosing to work out benefits you in various ways. First of all, you are giving your whole body a workout and addressing your physical health.

When you exercise, you also release endorphins. Endorphins act as natural painkillers and create a sense of well-being.

Having a sense of well-being is especially important for people living with migraines. That’s because scientists say those with migraines are unfortunately at an increased risk for depression and anxiety.

If you exercise regularly, you can also reduce the frequency of your migraines. Recently, scientists published a study in The Journal of Headache and Pain after reviewing 44 articles, primarily literature on the PubMed website, about the link between exercise and migraines.

These articles showed associations between physical exercise and migraines from epidemiological, therapeutic, and pathophysiological perspectives. Results were clear: “regular exercise may have prophylactic effects on migraine frequency.”

What If You Get a Migraine From Exercising?

For some people, it seems counterintuitive that regular exercise can help you. They worry that the exertion is what caused or set off their migraines in the first place. Sudden bursts of exertion do sometimes bring on migraines or exertion headaches. People may therefore be hesitant to use exercise as a tool in their headache management treatment kit.

While physicians agree that elevated blood pressure might contribute to a headache, however, don’t let that be your excuse for avoiding exercise completely. Too many benefits accrue from exercising. Instead, migraine patients are advised to choose to integrate exercise, sports and movement into their daily schedules.

How to Prevent Migraines Before and During Exercise

What can you do before you exercise to stave off a migraine attack? Consistent sleep, eating and exercise schedules contribute to our overall health. Sticking to a regular schedule, especially with an exercise program, is advantageous to those who get migraines.

That’s because migraine sufferers may vomit, lose sleep and constantly have their daily cycles interrupted. They may feel fatigued or unmotivated to go for a run or hit the gym. But don’t give up.

Developing a regular exercise schedule and adhering to it over time will afford you better results. Below are some other things you can do to mitigate the possibility of getting a migraine before and while you exercise.

Avoid High Heat

You can become dehydrated if you work out during very high temperatures. Be wise and exercise in the early morning and stick to the shade. Sustained heat exposure can also cause heat exhaustion. Both dehydration and heat exhaustion can cause migraines.

Hydrate

Drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration. If you find yourself exercising moderately or vigorously and you aren’t sweating, that might be a sign of dehydration. If you feel thirsty, your body may be sending you a sign you need fluids. So, bring a full water bottle.

A clinical study was recently published in The Journal of Neuroscience exploring the association between drinking water and migraine headache severity. It showed the benefits of water intake.

The study included 256 women between the ages of 18 and 45 years old. The results showed that the “severity of migraine disability, pain severity, headache frequency and duration of headaches were significantly lower in those who consumed more water.”

Those who get migraines should take note. There was a correlation between daily water intake and migraine headache characteristics. So, if you can, begin drinking more water every day and especially when exercising.

Eat a Snack

Eat an hour or two before your exercise session. If you eat a large or heavy meal before strenuous physical activity, you may experience nausea or get muscle cramps. Your digestive system will be working at a time when you need your muscles to be active.

Conversely, don’t starve yourself or exercise on an empty stomach beforehand. Migraine sufferers might become sluggish and light-headed during their exercise. That might also contribute to a migraine attack.

Snack on a piece of fruit or protein bar with nuts before you exercise. Fueling up on a snack with complex carbohydrates and protein is an excellent way to prepare your body for activity.

Warm Up

Especially important for migraine sufferers, it’s ill-advised to introduce a vigorous exercise program suddenly. Be sure to warm up before you begin by stretching, walking, gently lifting weights, and starting slowly.

Confer with your doctor or a trusted trainer on how to ramp up safely.  Also, those with migraines are especially reminded to cool down after the cessation of exercise.

Exercises for People Who Experience Chronic Migraines

Not only will you get healthier and more energized by following an exercise regimen, but these are non-pharmacological options. They are also free and accessible ways to add to your migraine treatment.

Here are good activities that can reduce the frequency and severity of your migraines:

  • Moderate-intensity aerobic activities. Walking, running and cycling are beneficial. They can help in your battle against migraines. According to a meta-analysis of studies on exercise and migraine published in The Journal of Headache and Pain, the evidence showed that these kind of aerobic exercises decreased the number of migraine days.
  • Sexual activity is a proven way to help your migraines. That might not have been an activity you expected on this list, but you may want to consider devoting more time to lovemaking. Indulging in this sexual activity could help you diminish the severity of and perceived pain level during any attacks.
  • Yoga is another great option. According to a recent scientific study, people with migraines who practiced yoga regularly had reduced frequency and migraine intensity.

Think about adding regular exercise, especially the low impact type, as a way to deal with your migraine headache management. There’s no need to rule out strength training if you can avoid strain to your neck and muscle tension. Seek out a credentialed personal trainer and recommendations from your neurologist or physician to guide you.

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7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. The Cleveland Clinic. Migraine Headaches. Updated March 3, 2021.

  2. American Migraine Foundation. About.

  3. American Migraine Foundation. Depression and Anxiety in Migraine Patients.

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  5. Khorsha F, Mirzababaei A, Togha M, Mirzaei K. Association of drinking water and migraine headache severityJ Clin Neurosci. 2020;77:81-84. doi:10.1016/j.jocn.2020.05.034

  6. Lemmens J, De Pauw J, Van Soom T., et al. The effect of aerobic exercise on the number of migraine days, duration and pain intensity in migraine: a systematic literature review and meta-analysisJ Headache Pain. 2019; 20(16).

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