Movement & Migraines

Have you ever heard the phrase “movement is medicine?” Exercise and movement have been shown to reduce the frequency and intensity of headaches and migraine attacks. Exercise helps by improving cardiovascular function and improving quality of sleep. It can also help with reducing stress and reducing muscle tension, which are common triggers for migraines that we see here in our clinic in Colorado Springs. 

The general benefits of exercise are often well known, but exercise can be a tricky thing to navigate for those with headaches and migraines. It is not uncommon for clients to tell us that exercise is a trigger of migraine episodes for them. For some, they avoid exercise completely out of fear that being more active may trigger a string of headaches and migraines. We frequently have clients ask which type of exercise is best for them and if there are any types of exercise that they should avoid. For many people when their migraines and headaches are active, the last thing they want to do is get up and move around. Then when their headache is over, there are others who try to push themselves when working out in order to take advantage of the times that they are feeling good. As a side effect of pushing themselves too hard, they may set off another episode of headaches. 

It can be easy to get stuck in the cycle of avoiding activity, being active and trying to push through, triggering a headache, then avoiding activity again. But there is hope for getting active without continuing the vicious cycle that contributes to headaches. Keep reading for our top tips to manage your activity levels when experiencing migraines.

  1. Evaluate your current activity level. Think about exercising like Goldilocks and The Three Bears. When it comes to working out, we want the amount of exercise that is not too cold, not too hot, but just right. What that means is that we do not want so little movement that it triggers a migraine, not so much intense and vigorous exercise to trigger a migraine, but the just right amount to get the benefits of exercise without the migraines. Both too little movement and too much movement can trigger headaches and migraines. If you reflect on your current exercise level and it is not very active, it’s important to start slowly and be cleared by a medical provider first. Starting a movement routine can look like taking short walks around your neighborhood or even your house. If you tolerate 10 minutes of walking, you can slowly increase the length and intensity of your workouts. It’s best to work with a personal trainer to help develop a gradual plan for exercise to meet your needs. 

If you tend to push yourself hard during workouts, it’s important to tune into your body for any symptoms of a migraine trigger while you are working out. If you feel any symptoms associated with your migraines while working out, take a break and rest. 

  1. Monitor your activity intensity level while you are working out. There are people with migraines that initially may need to avoid vigorous and prolonged workouts while in a season of more intense headaches and migraines. A good way to help you monitor how intensely you are working out is to monitor your heart rate while exercising.

To use your heart rate as a measure to help you know your workout intensity, it’s important to know the maximum heart rate. Your maximum heart rate is the highest beats per minute that your heart should be beating when you are working out your absolute hardest. To maximize exercise with the benefit of reducing the frequency and severity of headaches, you should be working out at 50% – 70% of your maximum heart rate. This level of intensity is known as Zone 1 (50% – 60%) and Zone 2 (60% – 70%) for target heart rate zones. Zone 1 is good for basic cardiovascular health, and Zone 2 heart rate level during a workout is known to improve your endurance. Both zones should give you health benefits without triggering a migraine. If you are in these Zones and you do start to get headache or migraine symptoms; stop and consult your doctor. 

This is how you calculate your maximum heart rate (MHR) as well as your Zone 1 and Zone 2 heart rates using a simple formula:

220 – your age = your MHR

(220 – your age) x 0.5 = 50% of your MHR

(220 – your age) x 0.7 = 70% of your MHR

For example, if you are 30 years old, your optimal heart rate zone would be between (220-30) x 0.5 = 95 beats per minute and (220-30) x 0.7 = 133 beats per minute.

It’s important to note that every person is unique, and what works for one person may not work for another, so it’s important to consult with a doctor, personal trainer, or strength and conditioning coach to determine the best heart rate zone for you.

  1. Be willing to try different forms of exercise. Certain types of exercise or physical activity can trigger a migraine episode in some people. These include activities that involve sudden or intense movements, such as weightlifting, contact sports, or high-intensity interval training. Additionally, activities that involve prolonged or intense visual stimuli, such as tennis or cycling, can also trigger migraines in some individuals. Other common triggers include changes in barometric pressure, extreme temperature changes, and dehydration, which can occur during activities such as running, swimming, or hiking. Knowing your triggers can help you pick a form of exercise and movement that fits your body’s need for activity and prepare for that form of exercise while avoiding setting off a migraine. 

Weightlifting is another form of exercise that we commonly get questions about in the clinic. Weightlifting can improve cardiovascular health, muscle strength, help with sleep and reduce stress. The most common triggers from weightlifting that we hear about from clients are with rapid and high-power moves like those needed for the clean and snatch Olympic lifts. A rapid increase in the amount of weight someone is lifting can also trigger a migraine. At times upper body and overhead weightlifting can also act as a trigger. 

Just because weightlifting is a trigger does not mean you have to avoid it forever. Start with lighter weights and slowly progress your repetitions, sets, and weight over time. It is ideal, especially if you are newer to lifting weights, to enlist the help of a personal trainer or strength and conditioning coach to help program a strength-building program that progresses specific to your needs. A fitness professional can also watch your form and give you cues in case your form with lifting is also acting as a trigger for your headaches.

  1. Give yourself some accountability. New habits can be hard to keep. We are more likely to stick with a new routine if we put it in writing and if we tell someone else that cares about us about our plan. Schedule your workouts into your calendar just like you would a doctor’s appointment or a physical therapy appointment. Then, give permission to someone in your life to ask you if you stuck to your plan. You can also ask someone if they are willing to workout with you. It is a lot harder to avoid working out if you know that you would be standing up one of your friends by doing so. 

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