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Exercise May Help Fight Migraines

Research suggests that regular exercise may reduce migraine frequency.

  • People who exercise more may have fewer migraines per month, research suggests.
  • Exercise should include aerobic activity and muscle training, for at least 150 minutes per week.
  • For those who have gotten headaches after exercising, eating and drinking regularly beforehand may help.
Clique images/Unsplash
Source: Clique images/Unsplash

More than two-thirds of people who get migraines could benefit from more exercise, research suggests.

In a preliminary study of migraine patients, which included more than 4,600 volunteers, nearly half of the people who didn’t exercise at all had 25 or more headache days each month. One reason is that lack of sleep triggers migraines. Nearly 80 percent of the zero-exercise group had sleep problems. About the same portion reported depression.

By contrast, among people who exercised more than 150 minutes a week, only 28 percent had headaches that often. This group also had about half the chance of being depressed and also was less likely to be anxious or have trouble sleeping. Exercise is a mood booster.

That's just one reason the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends at least 150 minutes a week of moderate to vigorous exercise for adults.

What if exercise gives you migraines?

Some people find that exercise brings on migraine, perhaps because their blood pressure goes up. But that’s not a reason to skip exercise.

Here’s what you can do, according to the American Migraine Foundation: Stay hydrated before, during, and after exercise. If you are thirsty, that’s a sign you didn’t drink enough. Also, if you’re moving vigorously, you should sweat. If you don’t, you are probably dehydrated.

It’s also important to eat, ideally with some protein, about an hour and a half before exercise. If you get cramps when you have eaten that close to exercise, experiment to learn the best timing for you.

A regular schedule is always beneficial to manage migraines.

Make sure you leave time for warming-up. If you know exercise can trigger a migraine, take it slow. Walk at a pace of two and a half to three miles an hour before you speed up.

What kind of exercise is effective?

Aerobic activity or “cardio” gets you breathing harder and your heart beating faster. You should sweat. If you can talk but not sing, you’re probably working hard enough. Walking fast, riding a bike on level ground or with a few hills, or playing doubles tennis all count as moderate aerobics.

Get in 150 minutes a week of this kind of cardio and add in muscle building on two or more days a week. Try to work all major muscle groups, including the legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms.

Another approach is to exercise more vigorously, for 75 minutes a week, and also do muscle-building. Some people mix up light and more vigorous cardio. A rule of thumb: one minute of vigorous cardio equals about two minutes of walking.

Women sometimes think they don’t need to worry about their muscles. Actually, they are more at risk of becoming frail with age, so it’s even more important to maintain muscle and bone strength to avoid falls and broken bones.

What does a migraine feel like?

When you have a migraine, you have a severe throbbing or pulsing sensation, usually on one side of the head. Sometimes you’ll be nauseated or vomit and be sensitive to light and sound. The pain can last for hours or days. Some people see flashes of light, bright spots or strange shapes. You might feel tingling on one side of the face or in an arm and leg. It is possible to have trouble speaking.

Sometimes you can tell a migraine is approaching. Some people become constipated, have mood changes, crave certain foods, get a stiff neck, or yawn.

After a migraine attack, you might feel drained or confused for up to a day. Some people are elated. A sudden head movement might trigger the pain again but only briefly.

Other kinds of headaches can also cause intense pain. If you have an aura, nausea or dizziness—and if the pain is only on one side of the head—your head pain is probably a migraine.

A version of this piece also appears on Your Care Everywhere.