This article was updated on May 23, 2024 by Dana Ionel, MD

Exercise is beneficial for many reasons. It helps improve sleep, mood, your heart health, and can help with weight loss. Exercise can also help migraine! Those who do less physical activity tend to have a higher frequency of migraine attacks. Studies have shown that exercise can help lower the frequency, level of pain, and amount of disability of migraine. It can also help lower pain in other parts of your body, which commonly happens if you live with migraine. Although it may be hard to exercise during a migraine attack, it’s important to try when you aren’t having one. 

Exercise can help manage the symptoms and triggers of migraine in a few different ways. Exercise releases endorphins, which are the body’s natural painkillers. Endorphins also induce positive feelings and a sense of well-being, which can be especially beneficial for those living with migraine as they face an increased risk of anxiety and depression. Exercise can also increase anti-inflammatory chemicals in the brain. It can improve sleep quality and consistency and help relieve stress, which are common migraine triggers. Lastly, exercise has been shown to improve the speed of your thinking and ability to pay attention, which can be affected during and between migraine attacks. 

Why Does Exercise Sometimes Trigger Migraine and What Can we Do About It?

Scientists have a few theories about why exercise might trigger migraine attacks. One idea is that very intense exercise can affect one of our sleep chemicals (hypocretin), which can also be affected during the prodrome phase of a migraine attack. Another theory is that certain chemicals that can trigger migraine attacks are released during exercise, like lactate and calcitonin gene related peptide (CGRP). If you are exercising with a migraine attack, it might make the pain worse because it can temporarily increase the pressure in your brain, or you can feel more throbbing in your head due to your heart beating faster and harder.  

Although exercise can trigger a migraine attack, it does not happen to everyone, and it is still important to try to exercise. Before starting an exercise program, it’s important to check with your doctor. To prevent stress and overexertion, we recommend slowly introducing exercise into your routine. By pacing yourself, preparing for your routine with the right gear, and carefully considering your diet, you can help reduce the risk of exercise-induced migraine attacks and get the most out of a workout.

First, make a plan to help you stick to staying active. Set reminders to get moving by adding time to your calendar, putting up sticky notes, or setting an alarm. It helps if you aim to make your exercise more convenient by fitting it into your schedule where it works best. Some people prefer morning activities while others prefer after-work exercises. Another technique that can help is getting a workout buddy, since having a friend with you might help you stick to your plan. 

Before any physical activity, warm up your muscles by stretching or taking a slow-paced walk. 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 too hard.

Preparations Before You Start

As you add more physical activity into your life, you should pay attention to your diet and water levels. You need to fuel your body on a regular schedule and prevent yourself from feeling thirsty. Thirst is a sign that your body is low on fluids, which is a migraine trigger for many. It is important to stay hydrated, which means drinking water before and after your workout and throughout the rest of the day.

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.

Creating a Workout Plan

The types of exercise shown by studies to decrease migraine pain and frequency the most are aerobic exercises (walking, jogging, running, cycling, swimming), yoga, and a mix of exercise with lifestyle changes (like a sleep schedule and stress management). Usually, it is recommended to do these activities about 3 times per week, but you can start slow and gradually increase how often you work out to reach your goal. Other activities that have evidence for helping migraine are muscle relaxation techniques, high-intensity interval training, Tai Chi, and Qi-Gong.

Ideally, an exercise program should include a combination of aerobic (cardio) activities, muscle strengthening exercises, and flexibility training like stretching. An effective exercise plan combines all three elements, whether in the same workout session or spread across multiple sessions on different days. When deciding what to include in your routine, it is most important to choose activities you enjoy to help you stay motivated. Physical activity should be fun! If competition helps motivate you, there are ways to compete virtually with friends. Try using different workout applications or setting challenges, for example. If you like mental focus in your activities, yoga, Pilates, and racquet sports require both concentration and discipline. Another way to maintain your motivation is to keep your activities exciting by switching them up. There are many options online or available through smart home workout equipment to keep you engaged in your activity.

It’s important to remember that a lot of exercise can be done for free, or for a relatively low cost. Taking a walk around your neighborhood, stretching at home, or following an online yoga or fitness tutorial can make a big difference in your health without running up high costs.

Primary Exercise Headache

While staying active is an important part of living a balanced life, some people experience headaches when exercising, a rare headache type brought on by or occurring only during or after physical exercise. If you experience headaches from exercise, you should see your doctor so that other serious health issues can be ruled out. This type of headache generally lasts five minutes to 48 hours and may have features similar to that of a migraine attack. In cases where the headache pain is mild or builds slowly, warming up before exercising may help reduce the frequency and duration of attacks.

Additional Factors to Consider

As a non-pharmacological solution to multiple migraine-related symptoms and risk factors, exercise won’t interfere with your existing medication regimen, making it a treatment option worth considering in your migraine management plan. Keep in mind that sometimes your doctor might still recommend medicine or neuromodulation devices to help, along with exercise. Other factors of migraine control that are important are diet, water, sleep, and taking good care of your mental health.  

Learn more about living with migraine and the diverse treatment options that are available by visiting our resource library.