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Migraine Triggers: 5 Ways to Deal with Exercise as a Migraine Trigger

Like many things in life, exercise can be a double-edged sword for migraineurs. Experts recommend exercise as an important component of a migraine prevention plan.

Yet a significant number of migraineurs find exertion, including vigorous exercise, to be a common trigger for their attacks. Here are some tips for balancing these competing aspects of exercise.

1. Pace yourself

Pay attention to how you’re feeling on any given day and exercise accordingly. I used to approach exercise like I was killing snakes. It was an hour of Tae-Bo or nothing. Since I’ve dealt with exercise-induced migraine attacks my entire life, that was a silly, useless approach to exercise for me. I’m better off to go for a swim or a walk on a cool day. Walks are especially great because I can take my active little Jack Russell Terrier Maisy with me, which she absolutely loves!

2. Work up to more intense exercise

When you’re starting a new exercise routine, meet yourself where you are. If you haven’t been doing any kind of exercise, anything is an improvement. You don’t need to break yourself completely down like they do to the contestants on The Biggest Loser. This is real life. Take it slowly and work up to more intense work outs. The migraine brain doesn’t like change at all, but it responds much better to a gradual changes than it does to drastic changes.

3. Pay attention to your other triggers

Triggers are stackable. While exposure to one trigger alone may not lead to the onset of a migraine attack, exposure to a few triggers at once is more likely to. If you’ve already been exposed to other triggers be careful about overdoing it with exercise that day. Take it easy or take the day off entirely.


4. Stay hydrated

Always drink plenty of water before, during and after any kind of workout. Dehydration is a common migraine trigger. When you exercise your body needs to replace the water you’re sweating out.

5. Keep it low impact

Exercise like swimming can be a great option for migraineurs to work their hearts without the migraine-inducing intensity that comes with an activity like running or aerobics. Walking (either indoors on a treadmill or outside on a moderate day) is also a wonderful option for getting your heart pumping without increasing your chances of bringing on a migraine attack. Gentle stretching and yoga are also great ways to move your body without exerting yourself in a way that is likely to trigger a migraine attack.

How do you approach exercise as a migraineur? What activities work best for you?

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.

Comments

  • patricklamy
    2 weeks ago

    Should we avoid vasoconstrictors like coffee, before exercising?

  • patricklamy
    2 weeks ago

    Is it dangerous to continue with intense workout during the vaso constriction phase?

  • TraceyG
    4 years ago

    I’ve been doing the couch to 5k recently, and now running 5k +, I love it! But every time, either the same day, or next day it triggers a migraine, I deal with it like my body is punishing me,, I drink lots of water and have a protein shake after, anyone else suffer, I don’t want to quit thanks

  • yqr41h
    4 years ago

    I am going through the same thing I have to limit and time my cardio activity to 10-15 min or I feel the migraine attack coming on, same for strength training if I’m doing heavy leg days I know to drink plenty of water and a recovery drink and to walk after sometimes it helps but most of the time I still get a lingering headache.

  • sandreini
    6 years ago

    The stacking is definitely important. Exercise is my worst trigger. Mostly because it’s the one thing I have a hard time avoiding. I’ve been able to adjust my diet, my sleep/wake schedule, many things. But I am a competitive athlete so I’ve been unwilling to give up exercise. And switching to yoga to tai chi isn’t going to keep me competitive.

    Bright sun and heat are also triggers and if those are stacked with exercise, there is almost no doubt I’ll get a migraine. I find that staying hydrated and cooling off as soon as possible after the workout sometimes helps, but not always, or even most times.

    Since I exercise 5 days a week, taking a triptan before exercise isn’t really an option although I suppose I could try that if it was a day where all the stacking was there! I usually try to minimize my abortive meds as much as possible so I save it unless I actually get one.

    Anyway, I’m mostly venting, I guess. I haven’t found any answer and struggle with this.

  • patricklamy
    2 weeks ago

    Do you know if it’s dangerous to keep pushing during the aura phase? I’m also competitive athlete and intense training brings on migraine often. Thanks!

  • joyelaine
    7 years ago

    I’ve been an extreme exerciser my entire life. I’ve gotten migraines for over 20 years, from almost everything except exercise. Exercise kept me sane, it was a stabalizer for me, and was my weapon against migraines. But two years ago I began experiencing exercise migraines. For me these migraines are intense, they last for days, and none of my medication or therapies will relieve the pain. All I can do is wait for the pain to pass. This has been personally devastating to me. Exercise defined me because I loved it. Now, I’m scared to death to do much of anything. I’ve lost a lot of muscle mass, my clothes don’t fit, and I’m losing self-confidence in many other areas of my life. However, I am determined to figure this out. I know I cannot run anymore. Weight lifting is questionable too. Yoga, my true love, seems to still work most of the time. But I cannot do the athletic yoga I prefer. The muscles in my neck get super tight, and will not relax, even with muscle relaxants. My neuro gave me Frova to take before exercising. The side-effect for me is that it makes me sleepy not long after taking it. Has anyone else experienced this? I wonder if hormones have anything to do with it?

  • Ellen Schnakenberg
    7 years ago

    joyelaine – It may be that you need to rethink your definition of exercise. It sounds like what you were engaging in prior to this was strenuous strength building or endurance building exercise. There are other ways to get similar benefits, but without the *strenuous* part. For example, have you ever considered Tai Chi?

  • April Kenney
    8 years ago

    I USE to be a very physical person, teaching classes, hiking, walking, climbing mountains. Once the migraines started hitting on a regular basis, biweekly, any activity is been difficult. Walking is the best, but difficult, like you said Lynne, “when your head hurts”! Really changes things ~~.

  • Nancy Brown Albert
    8 years ago

    wow April…..that sucks girl:( sorry for you

  • Donna Raymond
    8 years ago

    Sorry to hear this April! Hope you have relief soon.

  • Janene Zielinski
    8 years ago

    I have learned the hard way the things you mention and that is excellent advice you write. What is most frustrating for me is I would “work up” to a certain level and begin to feel strong, have a bad migraine – or series of migraines, and be back to “square one”. It is so discouraging to start over and over and over because you feel like such a failure. I really have to force myself because I don’t “like” to exercise. I’m never able to “graduate” out of the beginning classes. I’m having to teach myself to not compare myself to anyone else – or even compare where I am at this moment to where I was before the latest episode. Trying to learn to “enjoy” the excercise in the moment when I am able and not think of it as another “to do” with having to consistently achieve. Very frustrating.

  • Lynne Schultz
    8 years ago

    It’s hard-I am obese to begin with (stacked on a lot of weight since my migs became chronic) have thyroid, depression and other issues. Walking works best for me when the weather is decent (too hot and humid these days) I also like doing some of the Wii exercises. I have a recumbent exercise bike, but it got taken to the basement and as they say-out of sight, out of mind. It’s just hard to get into a routine when your head hurts most of the time 🙁 Gotta keep plugging along though!

  • Lynne Schultz
    8 years ago

    Ed, Amanda said thank you for thinking of her-we even found a picture of you judging her showing our dog when we went through photos the other day. One month to go and she’ll be married!

  • Eduard Lahmann
    8 years ago

    When I was in college I roomed at an ex football coaches house..He was going back to college to be a dentist( his father-in-law was one and wanted him in the business with him). Long story short he did that because of migraine headaches. He had them and was laid up for days because of it. The only hilareous? thing about staying there was the two little girls comments on the discussions their parents had about having another baby!! What kids hear and say!

  • Rachel Aalund Griggs
    8 years ago

    I love swimming for this reason. 🙂

  • Elaine Axten
    8 years ago

    anything that leaves my neck in the lurch is out. there was one pilates class that I just couldn’t do without flaring like crazy. also aerobic style yogas. I look out for yoga billed as ‘recuperative’ and the like, and if there is a super cheap class I go for half the class, that works.

  • Lyle Henry
    8 years ago

    Exercise can trigger migraines. The reason may surprise you as it is basically the same as why some foods trigger a migraine. You can learn more about this and what to do to help prevent these migraines in an article at http://tuliv.com/Migraines_and_Exercise.aspx.

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