Beyond Medication: Movement for Migraine

Written by Jessica Puterbaugh | November 10, 2021

Moving for Migraine Management

There are many proven health benefits of exercising, which is why adding movement to your daily routine can be a powerful way to manage life with migraine. Exercise releases endorphins, or “feel-good hormones,” which act as our body’s natural pain killers. They help relieve stress, boost mood, improve sleep, and make us feel better overall!

However, while the benefits of movement are well-documented, people with migraine often find exercise to be a trigger. This creates a paradoxical situation for many, but before ruling out exercise completely, there may be some slight changes you can make to add movement to your lifestyle painlessly.

NOTE: Before beginning any exercise program, it’s important to check with your doctor to see if it is appropriate for you.

1. Start by redefining exercise

The diet and exercise industry would have us believe we need to dedicate hours of our time to intense workouts to get appearance-driven results. However, the “no pain, no gain” mentality is unrealistic and unsustainable, especially for people living with chronic illness. It can also be extremely frustrating to accept that there are certain activities we just can’t do anymore. The truth, though, is that exercise doesn’t have to hurt to be beneficial. When we shift our thinking about exercise as pain or punishment, to something that is good for our bodies and minds, we can let go of our preconceived notions of what exercise should look and feel like, and just get moving!

2. Pay attention to other triggers

Many people with migraine believe exercise to be a trigger. However, there are a lot of other factors surrounding exercise that could also be the culprit or at least a factor. Pay attention to the following exercise-related triggers and see if avoiding them makes a difference.

  • Bright lights—if you’re light sensitive, working out in a gym with florescent lights or in the bright sunshine may contribute to your attacks. Instead, try an at-home workout where you control the light and surroundings. Alternatively, plan to exercise outdoors in the late afternoons or evenings when the sun is less intense.
  • Dehydration—Lack of hydration is a common migraine trigger so it’s very important to make sure you drink a lot of water before, during and after a workout. If you do a strenuous workout, especially if you get very sweaty, you may also benefit from a sports drink like Gatorade or Pedialyte to help you replenish electrolytes.
  • Low blood sugar—Exercise burns calories, so making sure to eat a snack both before and after a workout can hold off attacks triggered by low blood sugar. However, make sure that the snack doesn’t contain anything which could also trigger an attack!
  • Extreme heat—If getting overheated is a trigger for you, avoid exercising outside or in the hottest part of the day. Take frequent breaks and try low impact activities that won’t get you too hot and sweaty.
  • Heart rate—If a high heart rate is a trigger for you, avoid high impact exercise or anything that increases your pulse higher than is appropriate for you. Use a wearable device to track your heart rate, and try moderate walking, an under-the-desk glider, or even just gentle stretches.

3. Go slow and stay consistent

When adding movement to your day, it’s so important to start slowly. Jumping right into long, intense workouts will almost definitely trigger an attack. Set very short and attainable exercise goals such as an easy 5-10 minute walk or stretching session. When that feels good, add a little more intensity and duration if appropriate for you. Don’t push yourself too hard, and remember that consistency is key—the more you move, the more you’ll be able to progress. If you skip a day (or few days), take your intensity down a bit and then gradually work your way back up again. And always take time to warm up and cool down so that your heart rate doesn’t rise and fall too sharply, as this can bring on an attack. Remember, any exercise is better than no exercise, so focus on what is best for you rather than what works for other people!

4. Find activities you enjoy.

The best exercise you can do is one you actually like! For many of us, that may seem like an impossibility. But moving our bodies can be so much more than running on a treadmill. Consider alternating low-impact activities such as:

  • Walking
  • Swimming
  • Yoga
  • Pilates
  • Rebounding
  • Cycling
  • Low-weight strength training
  • Even housework like vacuuming can count as movement!

5. Remove barriers

Think about what prevents you from moving more and try to eliminate it as a barrier. Here are some common barriers and ways around them:

  • Time—Pick a time of the day that works best for you. Scheduling a specific time for exercise may help you stick to it. Some people prefer first thing in the morning, while others feel more alert in the afternoons/evenings. The best time of the day to get moving is the time that works for you! If you can’t find 20-30 minutes to carve out of your day for exercise, consider breaking the time into two shorter sessions. You’ll still get the benefits of moving, but in shorter bursts.
  • Clothing—Maybe you don’t have time for (or just don’t feel like!) changing into workout clothes. Who says you must wear yoga pants to do yoga? Just get moving in whatever you’re wearing. You can walk or stretch in almost anything!
  • Energy—Make sure you eat and drink regularly throughout the day to keep your energy levels up. And remember that you don’t always have to go big or go home. Low-impact and easy exercise can benefit you in lots of ways. Something is better than nothing!
  • Activity Type—You don’t need a gym membership or high-tech equipment to reap the benefits of exercise. There are many affordable or even free at-home exercise options to choose from online, and walking is one of the best exercises people with migraine can do.
  • Guilt—Guilt plays a huge part in the lives of people with migraine, but it is not our “friend.” If you have a migraine attack, the best thing for you may be to not exercise for a day or two, or even more. And that’s ok! Don’t dwell on the times you can’t exercise, or feel that you are a failure and shouldn’t try again. It’s okay not to exercise when you have a migraine!

Find a friend

Exercising with friends can help keep you accountable and motivated, plus, it’s fun and makes the time fly by! But it doesn’t have to be in person. Try setting a time and calling a friend for a daily walk.

Never underestimate the power of rest

Rest is as important as the work you put in. On days you are not feeling well or just can’t do it, give yourself grace and permission to rest. When you’re ready to come back to moving again, just start slowly and ease back in. Jumping back in right where you left off will be too much too fast and can trigger an attack.

Are you ready to add movement to your migraine treatment toolbox? We want to know what kinds of exercise works for you. What tips do you have for exercising pain-free?

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