Effects of Exercise on Headaches and Migraines

Effects of Exercise on Headaches and Migraines

Headache and ExerciseRegular exercise can reduce the frequency and intensity of headaches and migraines. When one exercises, the body releases endorphins, which are the body’s natural painkillers. Exercise reduces stress and helps individuals to sleep at night. Stress and inadequate sleep are two migraine triggers.

A recent study conducted by Varkey, Cider, Carlsson, and Lindy (2011) found that exercise, or the use of topiramate were equally effective in reducing the rate of migraines. Those participants in the exercise group exercised for 40 minutes three times a week. Therefore, exercise can be an effective intervention in the preventive treatment of migraines.

Some people may get headaches or migraines when they exercise. One possible reason for this is that a part of the physical reaction may be the elevation of blood pressure. This is not a reason to avoid exercise, which is good for general health. Instead, headache and migraine patients need a plan for preventing headaches or migraines when they exercise.

When exercising, follow this plan to prevent headaches:

  • First, stay hydrated before, during, and after exercise. Make sure that your mouth is not dry and that you sweat. If you are thirsty, that is a sign that you have a substantial fluid deficit and may trigger a migraine. If you do not sweat when you are exercising at a moderate to vigorous level, it is a sign of dehydration.
  • The second part of the exercise plan is to eat sufficient food about an hour and a half before you exercise. Exercise causes one’s blood sugar level to decrease, and it is important to have a source of energy. Foods with protein, such as a protein bar or nuts, are good snacks prior to exercise. If you get cramps when you have eaten too soon prior to exercise, you’ll need to schedule your meals and exercise more carefully. A regular schedule is always beneficial in headache and migraine management.
  • The final part of the exercise plan is to warm-up. Do not jump into sudden, vigorous exercise if that triggers a headache or migraine. This means walking for five minutes at a slow pace of two and a half to three miles per hour before walking at a faster pace or jogging or stretch or gently lift light weights before doing more intense resistance training.

Ideally, an exercise program should include elements designed to improve each of these components:

  • Cardio-respiratory endurance.
  • Muscular strength and endurance.

The way to stay motivated for an exercise program is to choose activities that you enjoy. Determine what exercises may fit your personal style. Make a plan to help you stick to exercising. Protect your exercise time. So, get moving!

Lucy Rathier, Ph.D.; 2014. All Rights Reserved
Director, Behavioral Medicine Clinical Services, Lifespan, Providence, RI
Clinical Assistant Professor, Alpert Medical School, Brown University. Last updated July 23, 2015.

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