How Exercise Helps Migraine, and How to Start Your Routine
Does exercise help migraine, or make it worse? It’s an important question for people with migraine, and the answer is… yes. An exercise routine can reduce the severity and frequency of migraine attacks, but for some people, physical activity is a migraine trigger.
Why does exercise help migraine?
Researchers are still investigating the relationship between migraine and exercise, but certain benefits of working out are well known. Exercise…
- Relieves stress, which is a common migraine trigger.
- Helps you sleep better. Insomnia/insufficient sleep also can trigger migraine attacks.
- Can reduce migraine pain. “Recent research provides broad and consistent evidence indicating that cardiovascular exercise can activate multiple pain modulatory mechanisms, if not the underlying mechanisms that initiate the attack,” a review of multiple studies found.[i]
- Can help reduce obesity, which is a risk factor (not a cause) for migraine.[ii]
Why does exercise sometimes trigger migraine?
Physical movement can trigger migraine attacks. “Actions such as rotating your body quickly, turning your head suddenly, or bending over can all trigger or aggravate migraine symptoms,” according to Healthline, which names rowing, running, tennis, weightlifting and swimming as some of the activities that are associated with exercise-induced migraines.
An sudden burst of activity, or extra-strenuous exercise, also may cause an attack. One recent study examined a group of runners after running a half-marathon. Researchers found in their blood increased levels of calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) — a compound associated with blood-vessel dilation and headache pain.[iii]
Exercise-induced headaches occur more often in hot and humid weather, as well as at high altitudes.[iv] For some people, migraine attacks are also triggered by windy or stormy weather, bright sunlight, or dry air.
How to start an exercise routine when you have migraine
You might be reluctant to try exercising, for fear of a migraine attack. But unless you know that physical activity is a guaranteed trigger, the potential benefits outweigh the risks. Talk to your healthcare provider about exercise recommendations. Many people with migraine enjoy low-impact activities like walking, Pilates, cycling, and tai chi.
Yoga is often recommended, but you have to make sure you’re choosing a practice that won’t exacerbate your migraine. Hot yoga or power yoga might be too much; instead, look for restorative or gentle yoga. Try Yoga With Adriene’s special session of Yoga for Migraines (free on YouTube) to see if it works for you.
Experts recommend taking it slow. First, make sure you’re well hydrated and have eaten in the previous 1-4 hours. Don’t rush the warmup. Begin with walking and gentle stretching. If you’re doing strength training, start with lighter weights or a lower-resistance setting on machines.
Then, gradually ramp up the intensity. Pay attention to your body: If you feel like you’re getting dehydrated or overheated, dial it back. If you’re working with an instructor, tell them you have migraine and ask them to help monitor your form to avoid strain on your head, neck or shoulders.[v]
If you’re searching for more medication-free ways to manage migraine, consider trying CEFALY DUAL. Now available without a prescription in the U.S., CEFALY DUAL is a non-invasive medical device worn on the forehead. It sends tiny electrical impulses through a self-adhesive electrode to stimulate and desensitize the trigeminal nerve, reducing the frequency and intensity of migraine attacks.
[i] Ahn, Andrew H. Why does increased exercise decrease migraine? Curr Pain Headache Rep. 2013 Dec; 17(12): 379. doi: 10.1007/s11916-013-0379-y
[iii] Tarperi C, Sanchis-Gomar F, Montagnana M, Danese E, Salvagno GL, Gelati M, Skroce K, Schena F, Lippi G. Effects of endurance exercise on serum concentration of calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP): a potential link between exercise intensity and headache. Clin Chem Lab Med. 2020 Sep 25;58(10):1707-1712. doi: 10.1515/cclm-2019-1337. PMID: 32286239.