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Movement & Exercise for Migraine Management

Be Gentle: The Effects of Gentle Movement & Exercise on Migraine

Anyone living with migraine is no stranger to searching Google for ways to prevent migraine, ways to relieve migraine, and ways to alleviate migraine. And there’s a good chance that those searches suggested exercise as a way to prevent and mitigate migraine. While it’s widely known that exercise is essential for good health, studies show that it may also play a significant role in reducing migraine attacks’ frequency and intensity

Why Gentle Exercise & Movement Is Effective

Researchers believe that physical activity may help reduce migraine attacks because the body releases endorphins during exercise, which act as natural painkillers and antidepressants. The effect can last for one or two hours post-workout. Studies also note that exercise has been shown to improve health problems commonly linked to migraine, such as obesity, hypertension, sleep apnea, depression, and anxiety.

And the benefits don’t end there: Research has shown that exercise may help improve sleep quality and reduce stress, positively impacting migraine. A study published in December 2011 in Mental Health and Physical Activity showed that 150 minutes of exercise per week resulted in significantly better sleep. And exercise may also help relieve stress by reducing the body’s stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol.

There Are Exceptions

For some people dealing with migraine though, the very thought of moving is filled with anxiety that it will intensify their pain. Of course, each person is different and will respond uniquely, so it’s important to note that exercise can be a migraine trigger for some people living with migraine. But for many, it’s a way to decrease the intensity of migraine or even prevent one from wreaking havoc on their day.

Recommend Exercises for People Who Have Migraine

Here are a few exercises you might want to consider if you have migraine.

  • Jogging, running, cycling, and walking 

Studies on exercise and migraine published in February 2019 in The Journal of Headache and Pain found that aerobic exercises—walking, jogging, running, cycling, cross-training—were associated with a decrease in migraine attack duration and pain. The study also found that moderate-intensity exercise—dancing, brisk walking—can be a plus for people dealing with migraine.

  • Yoga 

According to a study published in the July-December 2014 issue of International Journal of Yoga, people with migraine who practiced yoga five days a week for six weeks, and used a conventional treatment, such as medication, saw a more significant reduction in migraine intensity and frequency than those who received conventional treatment alone. The study also showed that slow, mindful exercises, such as yoga, were especially beneficial because they help decrease stress levels, which is known to trigger attacks.

  • Tai chi 

Researchers have found that the ancient Chinese practice of Tai chi can serve as a preventive measure for migraine. A study of 82 Chinese women with episodic migraine published in the June 2018 edition of the journal Circulation found that after 12 weeks of tai chi training, the women experienced a significant decrease in the frequency of migraine attacks.

Exercise Tips for People Living with Migraine

  • Choose an activity you like

You’re more likely to stick to a routine if you enjoy the activity. Start with low-impact exercises that won’t jolt your body too much.

  • Gradually build your stamina 

Take your time to work up to a higher-intensity exercise level. It will help you avoid injury and increase your chances of sticking with it.  

  • Snack smarter

When you exercise, your blood sugar decreases, so it’s essential to have an energy source while you work out. Foods with protein, such as protein bars and nuts, are good snacks to eat before you exercise. The American Migraine Foundation recommends eating about 90 minutes before you exercise. Cramps may be the result of eating too close to your workout. And, of course, going too long without eating can also provoke a migraine attack.

  • Stay hydrated—before, during, and after a workout

Dehydration is a migraine trigger, and it’s especially important to be aware of it when you exercise. It takes roughly 64 to 80 ounces of fluid to replace the water you lose in your bodies for 24 hours, higher for people who regularly exercise and live in a warmer climate. Researchers found that people with migraine who drank more water had a decrease in their headache’s intensity.

  • Warm-up and cool down

Jumping right into exercise could trigger a migraine. Try taking a 5-minute walk before you start running, jogging, cycling, or, if you’re doing resistance training, try warming up with some light weights first. After your workout, take a 5-minute walk or do gentle stretches to lower your heart rate and blood pressure. 

  • Keep cool

Being overheated can also set off a migraine. It’s best to exercise in a cool, temperature-controlled environment (you may want to think twice about hot yoga). If you’re going to exercise outside during the hot summer months, consider doing it in the morning or later in the evening, when the heat and humidity lessen. A study published in Neurology in 2009 found that the risk of migraine rose nearly eight percent for every nine-degree rise in temperature.

  • Watch your posture

Make sure your body is aligned correctly while exercising. Using the wrong form can place extra stress on your head, neck, and shoulders, triggering a migraine. Consult with an exercise specialist or get tips from online exercise videos.

Check out our calendar of Run, Walk, or Just Relax events or Mindfulness for Migraine events to find options to help your health and well-being. And always be gentle with yourself!

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