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 Migraine.com team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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