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Exercise and Migraine? Part 1 – What it is, and What it Isn’t

The mere thought of exercising when you suffer Migraine disease is enough to make the most stoic Migraineur quiver in fear. Moving while suffering an attack can be excruciating, plain and simple. That said, exercise can be one of the best preventives we can utilize, and if we do it right, there are few side effects.

First, let’s talk about what exercise is, and what it is not:

There are many ways to exercise, and sometimes the word is misused by both patients and their doctors. Exercise actually means physical activity/movement that is usually planned and structured and sometimes repetitive. Its purpose is for maintaining or building body conditioning and metabolism, flexibility and abilities.

There is exercise for strength training, and exercise for endurance training. There is exercise for flexibility. There is also exercise for maintenance of body structures and for rehabilitation purposes. Some people exercise for the purpose of building their physique, or to lose weight.

Exercise done properly improves health and maintains or improves the body’s fitness. It optimizes brain chemicals and neurotransmitters, slows aging, increases our cells ability to metabolize energy and helps us feel better physically and mentally.

Exercise can be deliberate, such as lifting weights or jogging. It can also be passive, such as walking up and down stairs at work.

Every time you move your body, you are exercising something.

Our bodies are very frugal. The phrase “use it or lose it” is how our anatomy is built to function. This is easily illustrated with the example of a broken limb. The bone is stabilized within a non-flexible cast that doesn’t allow the limb to move. Within a few short weeks the muscles have wasted, the tendons and ligaments have shortened, and when the cast is removed movement is literally impossible. The limb is nearly frozen into place. Physical therapists help the patient to stretch and strengthen the tightened and atrophied muscles and soft tissues, and in the process the bone is also strengthened. This is exercise.

There is no doubt that there are benefits to strenuous exercise done by Migrianeurs during their attack free days. However, for some of us, this is simply an impossibility as we have no attack free days.

Unfortunately when exercise is mentioned, most Migraineurs get scared, throw their hands up or weep in frustration and don’t even attempt it. Their idea of exercise involves straining, sweating, breathing hard, and a highly elevated heart rate for a half hour or more. They often end up walking away from a perfectly good physician because they mistakenly think “there is absolutely NO WAY I can exercise, and he’s/she’s crazy to think I can!” Doctors get frustrated because they think “If the patient really wanted to get better, they’d just try this” and sometimes they give up on them, glad when the patient has moved on to another physician.

Here is one of the disconnects between physician and patient:

When your doctor or headache specialist asks you to exercise, they do not mean during an attack. They also do not expect you to begin with strenuous strength building exercise. They may not always vocalize this however, misleading anxious patients into thinking they are going to have to torture themselves at a time when all they want is a good abortive and/or pain meds, and a nice quiet dark room to sleep in. Patients are often intimidated by their doctors and their limited time, and beginning a conversation with them about this shocking topic is more than they can muster.

Exercise for a Migraineur takes much patience on everyone’s part. Because they must start with simple movements and stretches and very, very slowly build themselves up over a period of weeks or months to anything resembling vigorous activity, many doctors and patients give up before benefit can be seen.

Stay tuned for Part two: How does exercise help Migraineurs? and Part three: How do I start exercising? Cheats for Migraineurs

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • Amanda
    6 years ago

    I found this article very helpful but I cannot find the other two articles. Were they ever published?

  • Editorial Team moderator
    6 years ago

    Not yet but hopefully we’ll have some more information soon! Thanks for reading

  • Michelle Stewart Lambert
    8 years ago

    Sometimes, when I feel a migraine coming on, I will go for a brisk walk and that will often make me feel a lot better or it will at least minimize the pain.

  • Mary Ortis Creighton
    8 years ago

    I do get out and walk, everyday, for an hour with my dog. I think laughing at her antics is more what keeps me going than anything else. I know I wouldn’t walk like I do if I didn’t have her!

  • Ter-i
    3 years ago

    I go for a walks with my dog too. Unfortunatelly he is male dog and he stops all the time to “read the news”, but I started to use his stops to stretch my neck muscles – easy exercise – just tilting head to the sides with a help of one hand (the other one holds the leash). Some stretching can be done using terrain – benches, fences, cars… At first I had some doubts, looking crazy, but as my rehabilitation therapist said “People look at you? They should join!”

  • Elizabeth Marsh DeChristopher
    8 years ago

    I look forward to reading more of this article. I have had huge results from watching what I eat. I read the book “Heal your headache the 1 2 3 method” the best thing I could have ever done. All of the Dr’s at UCLA in Los Angles told me NOT to do the diet it, “it’s not worth the trouble” but it changed my life! I would love to exercise, that’s what I need to learn next.

  • Gregory Harrison
    8 years ago

    Can u do low impact work outs, biking, hiking? Garlic!

  • Teri Helms
    8 years ago

    Elizabeth!…Bikram Yoga at University Village! It will revolutionize your life. ;0)

  • Nikki Albert
    8 years ago

    The operative word being migraine free days…. of which are a rare occurrence for me so I find it very difficult to establish any sort of routine.

  • deborahvan-der-harst
    7 years ago

    Me too.

  • Dana Smith Rosa
    8 years ago

    What’s a “Migraine-free Day”?

  • Amy Hines Narron
    8 years ago

    Ugh… I know what you mean.

  • Robin Blake Eldridge
    8 years ago

    I ALWAYS get headaches with just about any type of physical activity….pretty much had to stop working out at the Y; I can’t run; I can’t walk in the sun or the heat of the day; I can’t play sports; I can’t ride my bike in the sun or heat of the day….and when I get the headaches that start from this (and go into migraines), they will last for approx 48 hrs no matter what I do.

  • Beth Lasso Bisson
    8 years ago

    I don’t know why they put in the University that I graduated from many years ago. I live in Auburn, Maine. Oh, and like you, Robin, my migraines usually last 2 or 3 days. I have a really good Neurologist and he is trying some different things with me. My Easter was ruined because I woke up Easter morning with a migraine (it wasn’t too painful) and it didn’t go away until on Monday in the middle of the afternoon.

  • Beth Lasso Bisson
    8 years ago

    Robin, you sound exactly like me. Physical activity and the heat will give me a migraine. I have many other triggers: light shining in my eyes, MSG, alcohol, smelling certain odors or scents, stress, and the list just goes on and on. I would like to try to exercise again and I think that I’ll bring it up at my next Dr’s apt. Maybe I should talk with my Neurologist about it and see what he recommends.

  • Emily VanTassell Kellis
    8 years ago

    I also am looking forward to reading this series — I have gritted my teeth through several aerobic exercise attempts (3 months each). Exercise & migraine is often discussed (even on migraine forums), but like you said, often those with no migraine free days seem left out of the discussion.

  • Diana Lee
    8 years ago

    Thanks to Ellen for writing about this. My migraines are often triggered by exertion, making it very difficult to be as active as I need to be for the rest of my health.

  • Georgia Slesinger
    8 years ago

    I find that getting outside when weather permits and getting more physically active decreases migraine pain for me and can shorten it as well.

    8 years ago

    Exercise can be one of the most effective Migraine preventives, but doing it right can be tricky. This article explains what exercise is for Migraineurs, and what it is not.

  • Emily Lopez
    8 years ago

    Thanks for this article. I have suffered with migraines for years but exercising is what I love to do. Many doctors have told me to stay away from exercising. Finally some research that states the opposite. I am trying to defy the odds and train for an ironman triathlon despite my migraines

  • Michelle Brimtown
    8 years ago

    waiting to see the cheats =)

  • Michele Mullaly
    8 years ago

    ty that helped, meds, helped last night, and that “dark room”…..

    8 years ago

    Click on the title above or the following link to read the full article!

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