When you consider the question of how to help migraines, “exercise” might not be the first thought that comes to mind. But my own experience—and data resulting from studies—show a correlation.
Two years ago, if you asked me 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 it was making my headaches worse. The most I ever did was take a long walk or hike every so often. I wouldn’t have guessed back then that in a year, I’d be doing high-intensity circuit training five times per week. And I never would have guessed that I’d 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.
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
Migraines and headaches can be so debilitating and can interfere in so many aspects of daily life, that it’s difficult for sufferers to exercise regularly. In fact, one study showed that there’s a strong association between the prevalence of migraines and low physical activity. With increasing headache frequency, physical activity levels tend to decrease.
Too Much Exercise Can Hurt—and So Can Too Little
Researchers know that exercise can trigger a migraine, especially when someone is not used to physical activity. 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.
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 that “the therapeutic window for exercise in chronic musculoskeletal pain very narrow, with too little exercise averting beneficial effects and too much exercise aggravating symptoms.”
How to Help Migraines via Exercise? The Key Is to Start Slowly
Studies show that headache symptoms often get worse when people begin an exercise program. Not surprisingly, this often stops people from continuing. However, the risk of having a headache often decreases after a period of habituation, after the patient has become used to a regular exercise regime; researchers think it might be better to train the brain and body to get used to exercise rather than avoiding it completely as a trigger.
So don’t be discouraged if at first your symptoms get worse. They’ll likely get better if you stick to it. In order to continue to exercise without exacerbating symptoms, researchers suggest starting very slowly, gradually increasing both the duration and intensity of your workout.
Exercise that builds up very slowly to avoid a “crash and burn” effect due to overexertion is called “graded exercise.” It’s also 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 How to Help Migraines with Exercise
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. All kinds of moderate activities will get your heart pumping and your muscles working without pushing your body too hard—and causing headache symptoms.
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 preventingchronic tension-type headaches.
Researchers also warn that recovery following exercise is often delayed in people with chronic pain conditions, because of dysfunctions in the stress response system. Be sure to let yourself recover fully after workouts.
It took me a 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. After about a year, I was able to build up my tolerance, and now I can do a 40-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.
 Cephalalgia. 2008 Dec;28(12):1292-7.
 Clin J Pain. 2015 Feb;31(2):108-14.