July 6, 2022

Migraine and Exercise: Does It Help or Hurt?

Someone stretching to help relieve a migraine

Is exercise helpful or harmful for people with migraine? Learn the benefits and risks of exercise for migraine and tips for success. 

Migraine is the third most common disease in the world. If you have migraine, you’re not alone. Much more than just a headache, migraine is a neurological disease that impacts more than 1 billion people worldwide. 

Migraine attacks can cause you to miss work and feel unable to take part in your life. While there’s no cure, lifestyle choices can help you manage your symptoms and reduce the frequency. 

Exercise is known to impact migraine. If you exercise regularly, you may wonder what effect it can have on your migraine. Does exercise reduce or increase migraine? And how can you reduce your risk for migraine without giving up your active lifestyle? Let’s explore what we know about exercise and migraine so that you can make the best lifestyle choices for yourself. 

Does exercise help migraine?

It’s important to emphasize—every person who experiences migraine is unique. What helps one person may not work the same for you. With this in mind, it’s still worth exploring how exercise can impact migraine. 

Migraine and exercise may seem at odds with one another. But they make sense when you examine the benefits of exercise and connect them to what we know about migraine. 

Here are some benefits to exercise, as they relate to improving migraine.

  • Exercise helps reduce stress and improve mood. Stress is a common migraine trigger and something that many people experience in their personal and professional lives. Exercise can help manage stress and reduce this potential migraine trigger.  
  • Exercise can help improve sleep. On top of genetic factors, migraine can be caused by environmental factors, like sleep and diet. Exercise can help improve your sleep cycles, reducing your risk of migraine attacks. 
  • Exercise can improve migraine-related health issues. High blood pressure, depression and obesity are all linked to migraine. Regular exercise can help improve all three, leading to a reduced risk of migraine. 
  • Exercise releases endorphins. Endorphins are known as one of the body’s natural painkillers. These chemicals help your brain cope with pain. Endorphins also boost your mood. Exercise is a key way to release these feel-good chemicals into your system.

Regular exercise can be a positive step in managing your migraine frequency and intensity. It can reduce stress, improve your outlook, regulate sleep and manage health issues. 

But there are drawbacks to exercise for those living with migraine. Let’s look at some possible downsides to exercise related to migraine. 

Can exercise cause migraine? 

Migraine attacks aren’t your fault, but you may be concerned about avoiding migraine triggers. Because migraine is so debilitating, you want to assess any risk factors before changing your routine. 

In some people, exercise can cause migraine. But, reports of exercise-induced migraine attacks are low. Exertion headaches, or headaches that occur during heavy exercise, can be easily mistaken for migraine. This can add to the difficulty in understanding if your exercise caused a migraine.

There are many reasons why migraine attacks may happen during exercise, such as the temperature and air quality, noise level, light exposure,  your hydration levels, your position while exercising, what you’ve recently eaten. 

If you’re considering starting an exercise routine, it’s good to talk with your doctor first. You can share any concerns you have about your risks for exercise-induced migraine. Your doctor can guide you in making lifestyle changes while managing your risk for migraine.  

For most, the benefits of exercise for migraine far outweigh the potential drawbacks. If you can set yourself up for success when exercising, your forethought will be rewarded with a reduced risk for migraine. 

Best Practices for Exercise and Migraine 

If you already exercise regularly or are interested in starting—it’s smart to have a plan. With any changes to your routine, start slowly to allow your body and brain time to adjust.

People living with migraine who exercise should focus on maintaining proper water intake and nutrition. Food is fuel, so it’s important to ensure your body has what it needs when engaging in physical activity. And staying hydrated is crucial, especially when you’ll be working up a sweat. 

Interested in increasing your exercise, but unsure where to start? Pick an activity you like. Enjoying a workout doesn’t reduce its benefits. And choosing something fun, such as hiking, biking, swimming or even dancing—can help you stick with it for the long run. If you are just starting out, be sure to take it slow and gradually increase your exercise as you go. Starting off too strong can trigger a migraine attack, as well as cause injury and overexertion.

When you work long hours or have a high-pressure job, finding the time and opportunity to work more movement into your day can be challenging. But it’s important to realize that even small changes, like walking to nearby errands instead of driving, can make a significant impact when it comes to getting and staying active. 

Try adding quick stretching breaks to your workday. Simple swaps like taking the stairs instead of the elevator can add up. If possible, take a meeting with a colleague on a walk. Or, find an accountability buddy to help you stick with your fitness goals. Your body and brain will thank you, and as a result, you may find you’re more productive. 

One important thing to note is that it’s best to avoid exercise if you have a migraine attack or feel one coming on. When a migraine attack is triggered, strenuous activity is unlikely to improve the issue and may do more harm than good. 

Using these tips and strategies, you can build healthy, helpful exercise habits in your life. Keep your doctor in the loop to help troubleshoot any issues that arise. This way, you can ensure you’re experiencing all the benefits of exercise to reduce migraine. 

NSomeeed more info to make the best choices for you when it comes to migraine? Visit our Resource Library—where you’ll find helpful info and advice for understanding and managing migraine. 

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