A sharp, pulsating pain spreads across the head. Vision blurs and the overwhelming, all-too-familiar aura returns. This is a chronic migraine sufferer’s worst nightmare – another attack impends. If only there were a simple, natural way to prevent it…
If you experience recurring migraines, you’ll be glad to know that regular, moderate exercise has the potential to reduce the frequency and intensity of your attacks. Recent studies have revealed that exercise stimulates the release of endorphins – the body’s natural painkillers – as well as anti-depressant chemicals called enkephalins. On these grounds, a well-planned exercise program could be the accessible, drug-free remedy we’ve all been dreaming of.
The relationship between migraine and exercise
Physical exercise and migraines have a complex, controversial relationship. Many people identify exercise as a trigger – something that can provoke or worsen their migraines – while others swear by its therapeutic and preventive benefits.
One 2018 intervention study revealed some particularly interesting findings. It saw 52 migraine patients randomised into an exercise group and a control group. The exercise group undertook 45 minutes of aerobic exercise – cycling, brisk walking or using a cross-trainer – 3 times weekly for 3 months. The control group, on the other hand, continued their usual daily activities, with no aerobic exercise. After the assessment period, within the exercise group, a significant reduction was found for migraine frequency, pain intensity and duration, neck pain intensity and burden of migraine, along with an increase in physical fitness and wellbeing. So, can exercise cure migraines? No. Can exercise prevent migraines and help with symptoms? Yes, it appears so.
What are the best forms of exercise for migraine sufferers?
Leading an active lifestyle will help you stay fit and healthy. It has also been found to improve your quality of life – boosting mood, increasing energy levels and enhancing relaxation. So, what types of exercise can help with migraine tension?
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again – there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to managing a chronic illness. You need to explore your options and find a physical activity that you enjoy. Mild regular aerobic exercise is generally recommended but vigorous, strenuous sports or activities, such as weightlifting, rowing, running, tennis or football, are best avoided as some people find that they can lead to exercise-triggered attacks.
Good forms of exercise for migraine sufferers include:
- Yoga: Research has shown that yoga therapy can effectively manage migraines. As well as helping to reduce the intensity and frequency of attacks, this gentle, mindful form of exercise – which focuses on strength, balance, flexibility and breathing – is believed to lower stress levels, meaning it can help with stress-induced migraines. If the flow is proving too much for you, give restorative yoga a try.
- Tai chi: Like yoga, tai chi is an ancient practice. Often described as “meditation in motion”, it combines slow movements with deep breathing – generating a wealth of physical and mental health benefits. One study, which assessed 82 women with episodic migraines, found that after 12 weeks of tai chi training, participants witnessed a significant decrease in the frequency of migraine attacks.
- Dance: While a high-intensity class such as Zumba may not be quite the right fit, there are a variety of styles to explore – from ballet to slow, graceful ballroom dances like the Waltz. US-based Dancing with Pain blogger Loolwa Khazzoom is a firm believer in the power of dance as a chronic pain therapy – so much so that she teaches classes in it!
- Cycling: As a low-impact form of exercise, cycling is well-suited to migraine sufferers. One Swedish study put 26 migraine patients through a 12-week cycling regime to evaluate the effectiveness of the exercise. Participants’ VO2 max levels (the maximum rate of oxygen consumption measured during incremental exercise) improved; quality of life increased; there was no worsening of migraine status at any time during the study period; and significant improvements in migraine status (attack frequency, symptom intensity, and intake of medicine) were seen.
- Swimming and other aquatic exercises: Migraine sufferer Beth Francis from Anglesey, Wales believes swimming in the sea has helped her condition. Beth took a dip in the cold sea, without a wetsuit, every day for 100 days during the winter, and her migraines reduced from 25 to 15 a month. She also found that getting in the water soon after her symptoms appeared reduced the severity and duration of her migraines.
- Walking and jogging: A slow-pace walk or jog is another safe, supposedly effective migraine exercise. What’s more, it’s a great way to connect with nature. If you find that humidity and heat are triggers for you, try going out at specific times of the day, such as first thing in the morning or during the evening, once the sun has gone down.
With any type of exercise, it’s important that you establish a routine, build your stamina gradually, stay hydrated, use the correct posture, clothing and equipment, and warm-up and cool down. According to the Migraine Trust, you should aim to undertake 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, three times a week, giving yourself six weeks to see if there is any beneficial effect.
Please note, you should never push yourself to a place of discomfort when it comes to exercising, go at your own pace and never make yourself feel guilty if you don’t exercise.
We hope these migraine exercises are helpful. If you suffer from chronic migraines and are looking for support, why not join our Facebook community page Together For Better Days. It’s a relaxed, open environment for you to share your personal experiences, and features holistic health tips galore.