Exercise – no pain, no gain, right? Not if you live with migraines. For you, exercise can be a double-edged sword. Some physical activity can cause symptoms. But if you sweat it regularly, you may get migraines less often. You just have to know how to do it.
If exercise helps
In a study of more than 4,500 people with migraines, those who received at least 2 1/2 hours of moderate to vigorous exercise each week experienced fewer migraines than those who did little or no exercise. People benefit from brisk walking, cycling, jogging and even heavy cleaning – if that is your desire.
In addition, your sweating sessions release endorphins and other chemicals that directly affect pain. But many of its benefits can be indirect.
“While stress is the leading cause of migraines, sleep problems are a second,” says Julia Jones, MD, a neurologist at Houston Methodist Hospital. “Cardio helps you sleep better and reduces stress, so with most migraine patients, exercise helps.”
Physical activity can also help you lose or maintain your weight, and studies show that maintaining a healthy weight reduces seizures.
If exercise hurts
So, what is the disadvantage of a workout? Jones says a number of things that happen at the gym or while exercising can potentially cause an attack. “Excessive exertion, bright lights, heat, dehydration or a strenuous workout can give a patient migraines.”
Active overhead lifting and push-ups may not be a good idea for people who get migraines, says Stephen Corvini, PT, DPT, a physiotherapist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. High intensity or strenuous activity in the upper body can be a trigger, he says, because it can raise your blood pressure too high.
Rather try planks or press on the chest with dumbbells.
Find the Sweet Spot
Jessica Schwartz, a spokeswoman for the American Physical Therapy Association, may require a little trial and error, but you can find a good place to work with migraines. Try these tips.
Start slowly. “If you have a migraine, light to moderate exercise is usually very safe,” says Corvin.
Trade in high intensity activities for low intensity options. It can walk fast, swim or bike on a flat surface. Limit interval and CrossFit training to no more than once a week, Corvini adds.
Do not get your heart rate too high if you are sensitive to exercise. If you are particularly sensitive to exercise, you may need to keep your heart rate below 60% of the maximum, Schwartz suggests. How do you know? Use this formula: (220 – your age) x .60 = 60% of your maximum heart rate. If you are 45, you do not want to shoot more than 105 beats per minute when you exercise. You can check your wrist with your fingers or use a heart monitor while sweating. If your heart rate gets too high, reduce the workout.
Avoid triggers when exercising. If the light makes you land, do so early in the morning or late afternoon and wear sunglasses. Avoid gyms with the blinding lights. If lack of sleep is a problem, you should exercise after a good night’s rest.
Normalize your routine. “Eat, sleep and exercise at the same times every day,” Jones recommends. It helps maintain the body’s natural balance, which can help ward off migraines.
Make your body fuel. Stay hydrated and eat protein for about an hour and a half before visiting the gym, pool or sidewalk to keep your blood sugar stable.
Talk to your doctor. Talk to your doctor before starting an exercise routine. Make sure your symptoms are really migraines and not another health condition.