Exercise is profoundly healing for our bodies and brains. A study published in Clinical Rehabilitation found that 60 minutes of aerobic exercise three times per week cut migraine frequency and duration in half in 40 female migraine sufferers. In another study, it was shown to work just as well as medication like Topamax (topiramate).
The benefits of exercise for migraines
Exercise comes with so many benefits for migraines. For starters, it tackles one of the biggest triggers of migraines, stress. Physical activity is an amazing stress buster. It fills our body with feel good hormones, helping us provide more oxygen to our cells and clearing our head of all the thoughts and feelings we carry around.
Exercise is also a great way to stimulate our rest and digest nervous system that will help us reduce our trigger levels and increase our repairing capacity. When we move, we go into a minor fight-or-flight mode (the sympathetic nervous system), a stress mode that spurs up a cascade of hormones to help us survive the moment.
When the exercise ends, our body shoots to the other end of the spectrum into rest and digest mode (the parasympathetic nervous system). It wants to repair the damage done from exercise and releases anabolic tissue, building hormones that benefit our entire body including our brain.
For up to 72 hours after exercise, your body's metabolism is elevated. This means the speed by which nutrients get delivered and waste gets excreted is increased which makes a very happy brain. This is the mode and system we want to be in to repair our brain, repair our gut, digest our food, sleep and think clearly. When we are in this state the majority of the day, our body can prevent the need to trigger a migraine much easier.
The risks of exercise: overtraining and physical damage
Exercise is a positive stress, if used right. It does have its risks. Combining exercise regimens that you haven’t worked up to with conditions like cold, hot, or humid temperatures that create even more need for your body to cope - as well as certain times of the year like during pollination - is a recipe for disaster.
Intense exercise, especially, can be damaging if our body isn’t ready for it. Spending hours at the gym won't get you anywhere. Our body needs resources to rebuild and become stronger after exercise. If it doesn’t have these or they are being used for other areas of the body, rebuilding will be stunted.
If you’re not careful, exercise can:
- Tear muscles. That may take away proteins from other tissues that need it more.
- Release hormones. More hormones than our body can cope with.
- Add to structural tension, especially in the neck and shoulders.
- Drain electrolytes. Our body, and especially our migraine brain, needs lots of electrolytes in the form of minerals like zinc, calcium, magnesium, potassium etc. If they are already out of balance or not re-hydrated, dehydration issues may trigger a migraine.
Ways to optimize the benefits of exercise
Here are some suggestions to optimize the benefits of exercise:
- Make sure to work your body up to any intense exercise or you may induce migraines.
- When our body is already under a lot of stress, we want to use simple, relaxing and effective exercises like walking, swimming, cycling or yoga.
- Walking relaxes shoulder and neck muscles by changing your posture and uses your arms to shake out any tension.
- Steer clear of exercise near bedtime as it will raise cortisol levels and suppress melatonin, your sleep hormone.
- When exercising, avoid tying your hair back too tight as it may aggravate the musculature on your skull and trigger you.
Heal your migraine: Exercise with caution
In summary, exercise is an effective way to increase the body's ability to heal and steer clear of migraines. But overusing exercise will contribute to migraines as well.
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