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Resisting the Urge to Curl Up

Resisting the Urge to Curl Up

Getting and keeping the body moving is only growing in importance for me these days. As I continue aging and navigating the challenges of chronic daily migraines, I notice my body trending toward curling up, slowing down, and away from physical activity. And yet I have learned after years of doing just that (sitting nearly frozen in fear with the knowledge that movement would exacerbate pain), there is such goodness to be gained in pushing against that inclination; goodness in embracing health and striving for wellness.

Acknowledging the wear and tear of chronic pain

Exercising is one of the few proactive steps I can take in response to having daily pain. So much about chronic migraine involves feeling out of control of your body. It is hard not to feel victimized or as if you are in some strange battle day after day. The wear and tear on the body from long-term intense pain is comprehensive (picture fetal position, knotted and atrophied musculature, fatigue, shaky weakness, with everything down to hair follicles aching) and consequently, the importance of getting your body moving is all the more tremendous. Alternately, if we don’t get moving, the pain becomes cyclical – feeding off of those tight and sore muscles, triggering another migraine.

One thing is clear, regardless of whether or not pain is at play, we all have to find our own unique movement regimen that works for us. And what works best for me- won’t necessarily work for you. That said- perhaps there will be parts of my journey that might be helpful to others.

Finding low-impact cardio options

Most people I’ve talked with who are navigating life with frequent or chronic migraine have found that exercises which raise their heart rate significantly tend to raise their pain accordingly. The key, therefore, for me at least, has been to find ways to exercise that don’t result in my heart pounding.

My primary mode of spiritual and physical exercise is walking. Long-distance walking. Getting outside and inhaling fresh air, seeing the world, does so much to provide perspective. When one has to spend a lot of time inside, isolated, in a controlled environment due to pain, it’s refreshing and healthy to remember that there is a big beautiful bustling world out there. I try to walk 4 or so miles a few times a week when my pain allows though there are many weeks that I may only get out once.  But I believe every step is preventative medicine.

I recently connected my bicycle to a stationary trainer and have found that to also be an effective way to get exercise but not push so hard that I land in bed with a migraine for the rest of the day.

Online yoga classes

Over the course of the last several years, I’ve found a great offering of low-impact cardio, strength building, and yoga/pilates through online streaming and videos.  Due to the frequency and unpredictability of my pain, I can’t keep the commitment of a class schedule, so the best way for me to do these types of exercises is at home when I’m able.

I hope some of these ideas resonate with you. Are you able to exercise regularly or even at all? If so, what kind of exercise or movement regimen have you found to be most effective 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

  • iainstuart
    1 month ago

    Holly, I hope you enjoy your new garden. I grow mostly veggies, my wife grows the beautiful flowers. You’re right it is therapeutic. It is a lot of work, but I always feel refreshed after I’ve been in the garden, and the rewards are definitely worth it. Enjoy!

  • an.iron.butterfly
    1 month ago

    I get a couple of free yoga classes at the gym at work, so I take them. I’ll look into the online classes for extending my practice throughout the week. I would like to do ‘more’ (like a light daily bit after work to unwind…)

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    1 month ago

    Hello @an.iron.butterfly-

    thanks so much for chiming in. I found an online site that provides streaming no-cardio videos- a combination of yoga, tai-chi, pilates and principles of dance. I find it does not trigger or exacerbate my pain- just in case it’s of interest to you – I thought I’d share it with you. It’s called “essentrics.”

    I wrote a piece with more details about it here if you’d like to learn more: https://migraine.com/video/secret-exercise-tips/.

    Let me know if you find something that works for you.

  • iainstuart
    1 month ago

    Nope. Exercising during a migraine is a complete no-go for me. I have no desire to run into things, fall over, and puke on everything. This seems like very bad advice. Glad it works for her.

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    1 month ago

    Greetings, @iainstuart

    There is certainly not a one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to managing migraine. What works for one person may be a trigger for another. We all have to find our own way and along the way it can help to hear what has worked for others.

    What have you found that works for you? This is a great place to learn from one another and we’d love to learn from you.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    1 month ago

    @iainstuart– Thanks so much for sharing more about how your pursue exercise when you are not fighting off an active migraine attack. I know there’s no such thing as a day off when it comes to managing and caring for a garden! It must feel good to be outside when you can.

    I wrote the article in question and live with chronic migraine (some level of pain at all times). For me, I’ve found I must find ways to move despite my pain or else I would never move at all. Certainly when the pain is at its worst and I’m paralyzed by it, I’m incapable of doing anything but doing the ice pack, dark room thing.

    However, I’ve found that if I stop moving because the pain is exacerbated by movement, I end up having other issues (muscle tightness and knots) that lend themselves triggering another attack. It’s a bit of a no-win, isn’t it? And we each have to find our own way in this journey.

    I have just started to take on gardening myself so I have great respect for anyone who does it- I can’t figure out how to keep up with things like watering, and bending down so frequently with my pain- but I love the therapeutic feel of being outside (with my hat and glasses) – hands in the dirt, and being a part of helping something grow.

    Are you growing flowers or vegetables?

  • iainstuart
    1 month ago

    I do get exercise when I don’t have a migraine. I heat completely with wood, so spend a lot of time sawing, chopping and stacking wood, as well as growing a very large garden. I’m glad the exercise works for the woman who wrote the article, I just can’t move much when I have a migraine. I do what most of us do…dark room, “Ice Kap”, and medications (when I can keep them down).

  • mbabi1970
    1 month ago

    Omg Holly. I know this is an older article but one I didn’t read then. THIS is exactly my problem and with more days in bed and the less I move the more I have gained weight. I’m at the point of no return (almost). I’m hating the weight I’ve put on but really I have found the only thing I can do is walk. Obviously I prefer to be outside but I can’t be when it hot and humid or raining with storms looming or too cold. I know… so many stipulations. I do enjoy it when I can but lately my good days are few and far between. I do have a treadmill so I can walk inside. It’s not as nice but if it’s my only option, I will do it. I have been trying to force myself lately but on a “good” day, I usually only get the chance to do ONE thing. So if I have a doctor appt I have to save my energy for that. I can’t take a walk and do something else. So many times I forego the exercise which I know is not good but I’m caught in the middle right now. I REALLY need to lose weight. I’m the heaviest I’ve ever been and that is sometimes a huge source of my depression aside from the pain. But in the end I do agree with you that some kind of exercise is so important and I’m hoping I can figure this out soon. Always love your articles because they resonate so closely with my life.

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    1 month ago

    Hi @mbabi1970– You know I love hearing from you! Although I’m so sorry you’re having an especially rough time of things. From what you describe, you are making really thoughtful and careful choices about pacing to ensure you can accomplish what needs doing in a given day. Exercise is often something that gets pushed aside when we are navigating intense pain and other symptoms and when we have other priorities that require our attention and presence. I know many people can relate to this.

    Remember how important it is to try to accept and give yourself credit for the fact that you are doing the best you can to manage an incredibly demanding complex neurological disease. Giving yourself a hard time atop of all of that will only add to your stress and pain. Easier said than done, I know!

    The weight thing is so tricky too because we often lose control of the numbers on the scale due to medications we are on, and because exercise is so often a trigger. I have found, personally, that managing my weight comes down more to what and how I eat than how much I workout. I do walk regularly with my dog, but that’s about all I can do these days. As with most of us experienced chronic migraineurs, I had to take a long look at my diet and those potential related triggers. That look resulted in my removal of dairy, gluten, caffeine, sugar and red meat. I know you’ve been at this for years as well- I’m assuming you’ve explored the role of diet in relation to your migraines too?

    Try to be easier on yourself- know that you are trying so hard in the face of something that is incredibly painful and challenging. You are not alone in this. Our bodies taking on weight can be yet another symptom of migraine disease. Ultimately, though, in the big picture, even though of course we want to be comfortable in our own skin, isn’t it so much more important how we live and how we love than how we look?

    Right alongside you in this and so glad that’s the case. – Holly

  • Woody
    1 month ago

    So sorry to hear what you go through. What helped me was to break down the exercise into 5 minute lots a few times a day. It doesn’t matter whether you exercise in one block or several. If it works for you you can build it up to 10 minutes a session on the ‘good’ days. Good luck. Rae

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    1 month ago

    That IS a great suggestion, @woody. Thanks so much for sharing.

  • mbabi1970
    1 month ago

    that’s actually a really good idea that I never thought about. thank you for suggesting that!!

  • frogeyes
    1 month ago

    because of fluctuations in symptoms & the degree of symptoms re: eg cfs, fm, asthma, high blood pressure, bipolar 2 mixed & seasonal affected requires frequent tweeking to find the most reasonable approach & sometimes rest & sleep is required so as to get the 2nd wind to “then” be able to tackle things better.

  • Kjohnso175
    1 month ago

    I find light walking in the later evenings helps me. My photosensitivity makes the days a bit rougher, as well as the heat. Some swimming (not at competitive speed obviously!) can help loosen the neck and back tension, the buoyancy of the water is also relaxing. I find just getting up off the couch at commercials when you aren’t in horrific pain, doing some squats, stretching and floor exercises is very helpful for me as well. I would say I agree, when you have pain and stay sedentary, it makes it a lot worse physically and mentally.

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    1 month ago

    @kjohnso175 – Thank you so much for chiming in and understanding the real meaning of the article: that giving into a sedentary lifestyle – one that involves holding extreme tension and pain- bearing down in one position for hours — which migraine almost begs us to do, will ultimately lead to a worse outcome than finding some way to move- whatever that is for each of us.

    Gentle swimming sounds like a dream as does walking in the evenings! Also love the idea of using commercial breaks to move to ensure we are keeping the blood flowing and oxygen moving throughout the body.

    Thank you for sharing these valuable ideas.

    Hope you’ll keep in touch and so glad you’re a part of our community.

  • jjilw
    7 months ago

    I find ice skating to be a great exercise because it avoids several of my migraine triggers such as heat, jumping, and inversion. The cold air of the ice arena is helpful if I do have a migraine.

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    7 months ago

    Wow! What a grand idea! That is all quite logical- the smooth ice, the cool rink. If only I could actually hold myself up on two ice skates without wiping out and slamming my body on the ground! I will have to just picture you gracefully skating and gliding along the ice! Sounds beautiful. I hope others who have the skill will take you up on this wonderful idea.

  • Latodavia
    7 months ago

    I have sciatica and shoulder pain as well as migraines, which makes the exercising especially difficult. All my “pains” come and go, but one is usually present. Anyone else deal with this?

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    7 months ago

    So sorry to hear about the sciatica. That would definitely complicate the ability to pursue exercise. I had bursitis in my shoulder that was helped with some physical therapy and I now take fish oil every day seems to help to manage that pain. Many of our community members have made mention of dealing with sciatica in various contexts. You might find something of use here: https://migraine.com/?s=sciatica

    You are also welcome to post a question specifically about sciatica and migraine in our Q&A section where you might get more eyes on your post here: https://migraine.com/q-and-a/

    Thanks for your comment and so glad you’re a part of our community. Please stay in touch.

  • brandtizzle
    12 months ago

    When exercising, I found it helpful to keep my head above my heart. All that bending over for yoga makes my head throb.

  • Kjohnso175
    1 month ago

    I can agree with that. It’s almost as if a shift in our blood pressure can also be a trigger for searing pain.

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    12 months ago

    I’ve found the same challenge when it comes to yoga. I love to do it, but can’t do the poses that involve blood rushing to my head. Thank you for chiming in- it’s great to learn from one another!

  • Ryszard
    12 months ago

    Tai Chi seems to be helpful for me.

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    12 months ago

    Oh, how interesting! I’ve seen others do Tai Chi and talk about it in relation to Migraine. It seems gentle enough, full-body, and standing (rather than bending over, blood rushing to head) such that it would really work for Migraine. Thanks for sharing!

  • pttennessee
    12 months ago

    I get in a rut with my migraines and need to walk outside when I’m in a break from them. I know it helps

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    12 months ago

    Hi @pttennessee– I’m right there with you! Walking outside is a key part of managing my life with chronic migraine. The combination of fresh air and exercise is a great way to manage the stress and pain that comes with migraine. Thanks for sharing what works for you. Please stay in touch!

  • rlc25e
    12 months ago

    Odd that this popped up for me today. I was just on an elliptical at our local y and noticed my head starting to worsen so I checked my heart rate. Seemed anytime it approached 140 is when it got worse so I just slowed down. It is worse now than when I started but not like it was when my heart rate was 140. Guess I learned a new limit

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    12 months ago

    Good for you for paying attention to what triggers you and what your limits are. And you’re right, sometimes when we get a handle on what our limits are, they change with time. Migraines are frequently triggered by an increase in heart rate. Now that you know what your current “breaking point” is, you can be mindful of that number and stay underneath it and hopefully still get the exercise you desire. Thanks for sharing with the rest of us- it’s very helpful to learn from each other!

  • Antzus
    3 years ago

    I should perhaps speak from the other side of the situation – a bit of curling-up can be great! Essential even. For me, I would often push through the warning signs of symptoms only to get stronger migraines that might last days thereafter.

    For me it’s very important NOT to ignore the pain, to pay careful attention to my body, and if the migraine is starting, then to ease up on the activity, and probably curl up in a quiet dark room for as long as necessary.

    But I think you’re quite right about the importance of at least some physical exercise for more longer-term benefits. I’ve mostly stopped the more goal-directed sports I used to play – competing against others or pushing myself against my own barriers, and have taken a great liking to yoga, which I take at whatever pace seems suitable at the time.

  • ksimila
    3 years ago

    For me, lying down with a migraine only makes matters worse. I have to keep moving. I live in a part of the country that has long, cold, snowy winters, so I have a treadmill for days that are too cold to ski or snowshoe. I go to a yoga class three days a week, and I can often be found in the middle of the night on that stupid treadmill, trying to walk off a headache! In warmer weather, I walk five miles every day, rain or shine. In summer, I play golf and spend a lot of time with the grandchildren at the playground. My sisters like to sit on the deck all day and gab. I would like that too, but I’m only good for a short time and then I have to get up and do something physical. I know I miss a lot of good adult conversation, and I’m pretty sure people think I’m anti-social, but for me, moving is essential.

  • Juneleaves
    3 years ago

    As a formerly athletic girl, it’s taken me a long time to find a happy medium for exercise that doesn’t put me in bed for 3 days afterwards. It’s also true for me that raising my blood pressure or getting overheated are big migraine triggers as are rapid changes in position. I try and stretch in the evening on the floor when watching tv if I’m feeling up for it. Classes stress me out and most of the time I’m just not up for driving down into town.

    Walking and moderate hiking are absolute lifesavers for my body, mind and soul. There is something about breathing in fresh air that is truly restorative. (I am grateful to have found an apartment in the country on a nature preserve.) I even try and force myself to take a short slow walk, even if just a 1/4 mile down the road, when I’m feeling cruddy with a half mast headache. Out of walking I’ve have developed a really nice and unexpected friendship with a neighbor over the past few years and we walk 2 or 3 times a week. It helps immensely with isolation. Getting the body moving also shakes up any self pity or depression that’s creeping in.

    Lastly I ride horses on occasion and heartily recommend finding a farm that does equine therapy. I don’t know how to describe the presence of mind that occurs when sitting on a horse, but there is definitely a reason that equine therapy has become popular. It’s like I forget everything about my life and how at 44 I live with a chronic and disabling condition. While I am definitely unable to ride with a migraine, when I have those cruddy low level headaches, I totally forget it’s there.
    My two cents!

  • Macbeck
    3 years ago

    While I frequently have some degree of pain (thank you Botox injections for keeping it at a liveable level) my biggest problem is Vestibular Migraine – aka disequilibrium and vertigo. Thus exercise is not something I have been able to do as both the exertion and impact while walking can trigger these migraines. I was recently able to purchase a “glider-walker” so there is no impact, and if the migraine hits while exercising my sofa is only a few steps away. I’m up to at least a mile most days.

    This is what works for me.

  • Edomal
    3 years ago

    I too suffer from Vestibular Migraine. I have recently found sitting and/or chair yoga. By searching either of those terms I have been able to find some yoga poses that keep me upright and either sitting or using a chair for support. I also suffer with insomnia due to stress, which causes more migraines. I have found that some of the yoga poses are relaxing and if practiced before bed I tend to get more sleep.
    This has helped me.

  • Joanna Bodner moderator
    3 years ago

    Hi Edomal – We are so happy to hear that practicing chair yoga has brought you some relief AND has helped you get more a more restful night’s sleep! Thanks for sharing your experience. Best regards, Joanna (Migraine.com Team)

  • Vicki H
    3 years ago

    I’ve recently started doing yoga – with streaming videos or favorites on YouTube. I’m discovering the wonderful feeling of increased flexibility is helping me to sleep better at night and enjoy my days more. I’m even able to do some stretching with a migraine – something id previously never considered doing. Now I’m considering adding Tai Chi to my routine – I’m pretty excited about it!

  • Luna
    3 years ago

    Walking is a wonderfully refreshing experience. Fresh air, new view. The mailbox is 1/4 mile down the hill. To go around the block is about 1.5 miles. Sometimes I really don’t want to go but always feel as if I’ve accomplished something after doing so. Country living is great. There is a guy on youtube that has quite a variety of 1/2 hr programs. Different days I do different ones to work out different areas. Have to be really careful about my spine so can’t do the same workout every day. Any exercise I do is mood elevating and even better outdoors.

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