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Workout Wednesday: What’s the Deal with Exercise & Migraines?


Most, if not all of us have probably experienced a migraine headache at some point in our lives. It might’ve been signaled by a blurry spot in your vision or by nothing at all, but either way, it turned into a raging pain that pounded inside your head, causing light sensitivities, nausea and, if bad enough, even vomiting.

For those of us with chronic migraines, it can be more difficult than usual to find relief. Exercise may be able to help reduce the severity of some migraines, however, it may also be a trigger for them.

This week, we’ll talk about how exercise may be beneficial for migraine sufferers, and also discuss what to do if exercise is causing your migraines.

Can Exercise Really Benefit People with Migraines?

It’s no secret that regular exercise is vital to maintaining a healthy, active lifestyle. However, if you suffer from chronic migraines, getting yourself to go to the gym can be pretty difficult some days. While, for many people, exercise can trigger migraines (more on this later), there are some people that find exercise has the opposite effect.

A study published in the October 2011 issue of Cephalagia stated that “a controlled trial of adults with migraine who exercised for 40 minutes three times a week was compared to relaxation according to a recorded programme or daily topiramate use” (Source) and resulted in a conclusion that “the rate of migraines fell in all three groups” and noted that “for people who want to reduce migraines without the side effects of drugs, exercise may be a good alternative” (Source).

A second study in Sweden that appeared in the April 2009 issue of Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain looked at 26 subject who suffered migraines before and after cycling on stationary bikes. The cycling occurred three days every week for three months, and the researchers concluded that there were “improvements in cardiovascular fitness and reductions in the severity and number of migraines experienced” (Source).

When you exercise, your body regularly releases endorphins, which act as your body’s natural painkillers (they are called the “feel good” chemicals, after all). Regular exercise also helps to lower your stress levels and helps you sleep better, both of which are beneficial to helping you avoid migraines.

Exercise as a Trigger for Migraines

Unfortunately, not everyone benefits from exercise when it comes to migraines. According to the Migraines Research Foundation, “while most sufferers experience attacks once or twice a month, 14 million people or about 4% have chronic daily headache, when attacks occur at least 15 days per month” (Source).

While there’s no way to know just how many people experience exercise as a trigger for migraines, but it can a very real problem for a number of people. If you’re one of the unfortunate ones who suffer from this issue, you’ll be happy to know that while there may not be a way to stop this from happening, there are steps you can take to make the occurrence less likely.

Tips for Avoiding Exercise-Triggered Migraines

Deep down, you probably know that you shouldn’t swear off exercise because of the fear of getting a migraine. However, sometimes it can’t be avoided. Take a look a the following list for ways to avoid migraines when exercising.

  • Make sure you stay hydrated. This goes for before, during, and after you exercise. Pay attention to if you sweat while you’re exercising. If you don’t, or if you feel thirsty, you may be low on fluids, which is a common migraine trigger for many people.
  • Ease into your workout. Starting with a high-intensity workout is not what you want to do. Start at a 0 and work your way up, rather than diving in head first. When you avoid extremes and develop e routine of gradual conditioning, your chances for a migraine may be reduced.
  • Eat a healthy meal or snack before you plan to exercise. When you eat  a quick meal or snack that’s high in protein about an hour before exercising, you’re keeping your energy level high. Because exercise causes your blood sugar levels to drop, it’s important to fuel yourself with enough protein to maintain proper energy levels.
  • Don’t avoid exercise. While you may be afraid of developing a migraine and are tempted to skip your workout, don’t do it. It’s important to understand your triggers and work with them. If bright light triggers a migraine, wear sunglasses (even at the gym). A moderate level of exercise may help reduce your migraines, but if you don’t try it, you’ll never know if it’ll work for you.

Other Options for Natural Migraine Relief

Exercise may help your migraines, and it may not. If you’re still interested in a more natural approach to migraine relief, some of our favorite options are listed below.

Other very popular options include inhaling lavender, basil or peppermint oils or applying them topically to the site of your migraine pain. Scalp massages, which you can do by yourself at home, are another great option. Massaging the area at the base of your skull may be particularly helpful in relieving or reducing migraine pain.

Because what you put into your body can have very clear effects on it, it’s important to also be aware and keep track of any foods that may trigger your migraines.  Once you’ve pinned them down, try to avoid them to lessen your headaches.

What do you do to get rid of your migraines? If you have any other tips, we’d love for you to share. Please leave us a note in the comment section below.

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