Being active can relieve stress, improve sleep and even reduce headache attacks

Exercise can be as beneficial for your mental health as it is for your physical health—and that’s a particularly good thing for those living with migraine. There’s evidence to suggest regular exercise can help reduce the frequency of headache attacks: not only does exercise reduce stress, a common migraine trigger, but it also helps regulate sleep, elevates painkilling and mood-elevating endorphins, and can combat obesity—all of which can contribute to migraine frequency.

Why Exercise?

Exercise helps manage the symptoms and triggers of migraine on multiple fronts. Exercise releases endorphins, which are the body’s natural painkillers. Endorphins also induce positive feelings and a sense of well-being, an asset for people living with migraine, who face increased risk of anxiety and depression. Exercise can improve sleep quality and consistency and help relieve stress, which are both common migraine triggers. Caroline Alvo, a certified integrative nutrition and health coach, went from being unable to leave her house due to debilitating chronic migraine,to running marathons. Her secret: a regular exercise routine that she built up gradually. Exercise “really attacks migraines from all fronts,” Alvo said in a recent live chat with AMF’s Move Against Migraine support community.

How to Get Started

Reduce the risk of exercise-induced migraine and maximize the therapeutic benefit of a workout by pacing yourself, and preparing for your routine with the right gear and a carefully considered diet. Introduce exercise “little by little,” Alvo said. A good start for beginners can be as simple as walking for 5-10 minutes. Over time, you can build up your tolerance and tackle longer or tougher exercises. Be sure to listen to your body and avoid pushing yourself, since that can trigger a migraine. It helps to warm up your muscles first by mindfully stretching before an activity and, if you are going on a run, start by walking and progressing to a slow jog before picking up the pace, Alvo said. “Really, really pace yourself,” Alvo said. “Don’t try to be an Olympic athlete right out of the gate.”

Preparations Before You Start

Eating before exercise can also prevent your blood sugar from dropping and keep you energized during workouts. Many people living with migraine already monitor their diets closely to reduce their exposure to food triggers. If you’re increasing your physical activity, consider that you may have to alter your diet to meet your changing caloric needs. Equally important is staying hydrated, which means drinking water before and after your workout (and throughout the rest of the day). Investing in quality workout gear—like running shoes if you jog—is worth the expense. The right gear can help you avoid injury and can prevent migraine attacks triggered by tension.

Additional Factors to Consider

People living with Chronic Migraine might not be ready to introduce robust exercise into their routine, as exercise can trigger a headache attack. But as you gain more control over your migraine and develop a better understanding of your symptoms, experimenting with exercise as a treatment strategy can be a worthwhile endeavor. As a non-pharmacological solution to multiple migraine-related symptoms and risk factors, incorporating exercise into your migraine management plan won’t interfere with your existing medication regimen, making it a treatment option worth considering for people living with or at risk of developing Medication Overuse Headache.

Exercise can play a significant role in reducing the intensity or frequency of headache attacks without adding more medications to your pain management strategy. Learn more about living with migraine and the diverse treatment options that are available by visiting the American Migraine Foundation’s resource library.