Regular exercise releases the body’s natural painkillers, reduces stress, and improves sleep. All of these can help reduce the frequency and severity of migraine attacks. In fact, a 2011 randomized study determined that 40 minutes of indoor cycling three times a week was as effective as both topiramate (25-200 mg per day) or daily relaxation exercises. The trouble is that exercise can also be a migraine trigger. A 2013 Dutch study concluded that 38 percent of migraine patients experience exercise as a migraine trigger. Discovering that delicate balance between benefits and trigger can be challenging, yet the long-term health benefits are worth making the effort.
Three elements of a good exercise program are cardiovascular endurance, strength training, and flexibility. How you achieve these elements is really up to you and your fitness level. Each one can be accomplished without triggering migraine. It just takes a bit of creative thinking. Any sudden change in environment can be a trigger, so jumping into a high-impact aerobic workout would likely be a mistake. Instead, give your body time to warm up. Gentle stretching and a gradual increase in activity will reduce the risk of exercise-induced migraine attacks, according to the 2011 study.
While an ideal program will include all three elements, it may be more realistic to start with flexibility. Gentler forms of exercise such as yoga, Pilates, or Tai Chi can easily be adapted to your fitness level without the sudden jolt of a more aggressive workout. All of these can be done at home. Thanks to the internet, there are many ways to learn a new exercise routine from the comfort of your own home. Inexpensive DVDs are also available for a variety of exercise programs. Even simple stretching can produce the health benefits of increased flexibility and balance.
Never underestimate the power of your own body. Strength training need not require expensive equipment. Famous exercise enthusiast Jack Lalane was known for teaching people how to use common household items for strength training. Multiple repetitions with lightweight items such as a can of vegetables can be quite effective. You can also use 1-5 pound weights or resistance bands.
You don’t have to run or complete an intense aerobic workout to achieve the benefits of cardiovascular exercise. Start small by walking around the block. Many local malls open their doors a few hours early to allow people to walk indoors all year-round. It’s a perfect solution for our weather-sensitive brains. As your endurance improves, you can pick up the pace or add small hand weights for added resistance.
Start small and go slow
Even if you hate formal exercise, you can still get the health benefits of exercise by incorporating activity into each day. Our ancestors did not have organized exercise programs. Instead, physical activity was an extension of daily life. By making small adjustments to your day, you can easily gain the benefits of exercise without triggering a migraine attack.
Break it up
If you struggle to schedule a specific time for exercise, you may find success by breaking it up into two or three sessions of 10-15 minutes each. Take 10 minutes for some gentle stretching or yoga in the morning. Then take a 10 minute walk at lunch time followed by 10 more minutes of simple strengthening exercises after dinner.
Tip: It’s easy to squeeze in a few minutes of strength training while preparing dinner. You can use resistance bands, light hand weights, or cans of soup for some quick reps. Practice squats while loading the dishwasher, too.
Challenge yourself to think outside the concept of traditional exercise. Routine household chores can easily become part of your daily workout with some small adjustments. Adding dance music to your tasks can greatly increase your motivation to move more. If you have more than one level, purposely plan to make extra trips up and down the stairs. Find ways to add movement to the “dead time” in each day. For example, when you waiting on hold, put your phone on speaker or use headphones while you do some gentle stretching or light weight lifting.
Track your progress
Use a Fitbit or other wearable activity tracker to monitor your progress. You can also use an activity log like the USDA Activity Tracker. Compare your progress to your migraine diary, making adjustments as necessary to maximize the health benefits of exercise while avoiding those activities that may trigger a migraine attack. Over time you will develop the perfect balance of exercise and trigger avoidance.
1 Rathier L. Effects of Exercise on Headaches and Migraines. American Migraine Foundation. Updated July 23, 2015. Accessed January 11, 2017.
2 Varkey E, Cider A, Carlsson J, et al. Exercise as Migraine Prophylaxis: A randomized study using relaxation and topiramate as controls. Cephalagia. 2011;31(14)-1428-1438.
3 Koppen H, van Veldhoven PLJ. Migraineurs With Exercise-Triggered Attacks Have a Distinct Migraine. The Journal of Headache and Pain. 2013; DOI: 10.1186/1129-2377-14-99.
Headache disorders counselor and advocate Tammy Rome maintains a private practice specializing in treating clients with Migraine and other headache disorders. She also volunteers as vice chair of the American Headache and Migraine Association and as president of The Cluster Headache Support Group. You can read more of Tammy’s work on her website and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, StumbleUpon, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Google+.