How to Help Migraines and Chronic Headaches With Just Enough Exercise

How-to-Help-Migraines-and-Chronic-Headaches-With-Just-Enough-ExerciseIf you asked me two years ago what I did for exercise, the only honest answer would be almost nothing. During that time, my chronic headaches were very bad, and they were accompanied by debilitating fatigue. I almost never exercised because it was either too hard, or I felt that it was making my headaches worse.

The most I ever did was take a long walk or hike every so often. I never would have guessed then that in over a year I would be doing high intensity circuit training five times per week. And I never would have guessed that I would be able to attribute much of the improvements in my headaches to regular exercise. But it took a long time to get to that point. 

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If you have chronic headaches or migraines, you know that getting enough exercise can be difficult. Exercise can aggravate symptoms if done too much or too quickly, but it is important to remember that it can also help, too. The key is to find a healthy balance, without doing too much, or too little exercise. Learn how to help migraines with a manageable and effective exercise plan.

Most chronic headache patients are physically inactive

Because migraines and headaches can be so debilitating and interfere with daily life, it makes it difficult for people with these conditions to exercise regularly. In fact, one study showed that there is a strong association between the prevalence of migraines and low physical activity. With increasing headache frequency, physical activity levels tend to decrease.[1] The trouble is, exercise is vital for good health, protecting your brain, fighting depression, improving digestive health, and more. Plus, it can also help to treat your headaches too.

Too much exercise can hurt, as can too little

The problem with exercising as a way for how to help migraines is that both too little and too much can be harmful. Researchers know that exercise can trigger a migraine, especially when someone is not used to physical activity. But on the other hand, exercise can also help prevent headaches from occurring. There are many reasons for this. For one, intense aerobic exercise triggers the production of endorphins, which act as inhibitors of pain.[2]

So how can you reconcile both the potentially beneficial and potentially harmful effects of exercise if you suffer from headaches? The authors of one review paper conclude, “This makes the therapeutic window for exercise in chronic musculoskeletal pain very narrow, with too little exercise averting beneficial effects and too much exercise aggravating symptoms.”[2]

The key is to start slowly

Studies show that headache symptoms often get worse when people begin an exercise program. And unsurprisingly, this often stops people from continuing. However, the risk of having a headache often decreases after a period of habituation, after the patient has gotten used to a regular exercise regime; researchers think that it might be better to train the brain and body to get used to exercise rather than avoiding it completely as a trigger.[2]

So don’t be discouraged if at first your symptoms get worse. They will likely get better if you stick to it. And in order to continue to exercise without exacerbating symptoms too much, researchers suggest that when you are just starting out, you very slowly increase both the duration and intensity of your workout.[2]

Exercise that is built up very slowly to avoid a “crash and burn” effect due to overexertion is called graded exercise. It is also very helpful for chronic fatigue syndrome. To learn more about how to use graded exercise to build up to a manageable and effective exercise regime, read more here.

Additional tips for exercising with headaches

Remember, doing too much (in terms of frequency, intensity, or duration) can aggravate your headaches. So don’t set expectations for yourself too high. You don’t need to run marathons to help yourself feel better, and you probably shouldn’t. There are many moderate activities that will still get your heart pumping and your muscles working without pushing your body too hard.

As far as specific types of exercise go, experts suggest aerobic exercise (at a moderate level, not at maximum intensity) to be best for migraine prevention, and neck and shoulder exercises to be especially helpful for chronic tension-type headache.[2]

Researchers also warn that recovery following exercise is often delayed in people with chronic pain conditions, because of dysfunctions in the stress response system.[2] Be sure to let yourself recover fully after workouts, and remember not to push yourself too hard.

It took me a very long time to build up to my almost daily interval training exercise regime. I had to begin with months of frequent walks at first, after which I added in bouts of light jogging. I then began doing circuit training, but only at a very low intensity and with many breaks. Over a year later, I have been able to build up my tolerance and now I can do a forty-minute high intensity workout without triggering a migraine. And I can truly say that since I have begun exercising regularly, my migraines have improved immensely. I haven’t felt better in years.

Share your experience

Do you find exercise helps prevent your headaches? What other tips do you have for helping treat migraines? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

[1] Cephalalgia. 2008 Dec;28(12):1292-7.

[2] Clin J Pain. 2015 Feb;31(2):108-14.

  • Very interesting! I have chronic daily migraine (over 2 years) on cgrp treatment and I have now gotten some reduced pain levels from that although still daily. I started 3 times a week ( I was quite fit prior to getting sick with headaches) and sometimes it makes my head a bit worse sometimes I feel fantastic. I do cardio moderately and Pilates. I started over 1.5 months ago. While it definitely gives me more energy I still don’t see it break the headache cycle

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