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Migraines and Exercise

Updated: Jul 10

Exercise can be as beneficial for your mental health as it is for your physical health.” So says the American Migraine Foundation, in an article titled, Managing Migraine with Exercise.

June is Migraine Awareness Month:

A migraine is not a headache. It is the most disabling of all neurological disorders and ranks 7th among all causes of disability worldwide.

For some of my clients, migraine pain is not only debilitating but it interferes with our exercise sessions in the form of reduced productivity during sessions or even sometimes cancellations. I am hoping to shed some light on helping you manage your migraine pain better and more effectively.

What is a migraine?

migraine, which affects over 39 million people in the U.S., is a type of headache, characterized by recurrent attacks of moderate to severe throbbing and pulsating pain, typically affecting one side of the head. These painful episodes can last for hours to days and are often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and extreme sensitivity to light and sound.

-National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke-

There are 3 major stages of a migraine with minor stages nestled in between.

The first stage of migraine is called the prodrome stage. The word prodrome means an early sign or symptom, usually one to two days prior to the onset of a disease or illness. For some people this could present itself as an aura which is defined as a reversible neurological symptom just before or during a migraine, usually a visual disturbance, tingling toward the tail end of the aura and could affect speech.

The next phase of stage 1 migraine is the attack phase. The actual migraine pain with throbbing, light sensitivity, and nausea.

The last phase of stage 1 is postdrome. Feeling drained or confused, feeling bruised at the sight of the migraine. This could last up to 1 day.

The 2nd stage of migraine is what causes or triggers the migraine. This includes genetics, environmental factors such as stress, improper sleep, alcohol, certain foods (Trigger or Treat: A Comprehensive Guide to Migraine-Friendly Foods, Diets, and Possible Triggers — Migraine Again).  A short list of trigger foods to avoid are bananas, prunes, strawberries, onion, avocado, olives, spinach, processed meats, pre-ground meats, any fermented dairy products such as cheese, yogurt, kefir, all fish, leftover meats, soy products, bleached flour, barley malt, margarine, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, all chocolate, prepared dessert fillings, pickles, coleslaw, sauerkraut, fruit juices, carbonated beverages,  black, green or white tea, all alcohol.

Click on the link above to see the full list of what is safe to eat and what more to avoid eating for migraines.

Other causes take place with the brain chemicals such as too much serotonin, hormonal changes especially for women, abnormal brain structures.

The 3rd stage of migraine is treatment. This includes medications, self-help remedies and journaling, and consulting a neurology specialist.

According to the American Migraine Foundation, there are ways to use exercise to mitigate the frequency of migraine attacks.

Exercise not only changes your body, but it also changes your mind, your attitude, and your mood.

Exercise helps manage the symptoms of triggers of migraine on multiple fronts. Exercise releases endorphins, which are the body’s natural painkillers. Endorphins also induce positive feelings and a sense of well-being, an asset for people living with migraine, who face increased risk of anxiety and depression.” reports that “a 2019 review of studies found that regular aerobic exercise (walking, cycling, light jogging, running) may lead to a reduction of migraine episodes. Participants in the study experienced a decrease of 0.6 migraine days per month, along with lower pain levels.”

“Exercise can improve sleep quality and consistency and help relieve stress, which are both common migraine triggers.” It is suggested that if you are going to include exercise into your daily routine to help lessen the frequency of migraines, build up a routine on a regular basis, pace yourself, have the right gear (correct footwear, exercise equipment), create a migraine friendly diet plan and keep a journal of what works and what doesn’t.

Two factors to always keep at top of mind:

*  Keep a dietary journal of what foods are triggering your migraines and what foods work best for you. suggests,

“Eat a small snack or meal 1-4 hours before exercising.

 The pre-workout meal or snack should consist of carbohydrates and a small amount of protein and fat.”  Example: apple, peanut butter or blueberries. Post-workout foods should include a small meal of carbohydrates and protein. Always stay hydrated before, during and after exercise.

* Keep exercise to a tolerable level and time limit.  Warm up your body 3-5 minutes before physical activity. It is possible that over exhaustion can occur as a result of strenuous exercise. If you listen to your body carefully, you will know when too much is too much and when you are ready to elevate your level of exercise. Always check with your doctor before introducing anything new to your daily routine whether it be diet or exercise. The best exercise to start with is walking.

“Water is the driving force of all nature.”-Leonardo Da Vinci

Should you exercise during an active migraine? suggests “not to do any strenuous exercises during an active migraine. The potential for a worsening migraine is greater at this time. The migraine pain is largely due to a change in blood vessel diameter in the meninges surrounding the brain.”

For some people that use virtual workouts as their exercise platform of choice, suggests “limiting your exposure to electronic devices during an active migraine. To possibly help minimize migraine onset while using your electronic devices, use an anti-glare screen, when possible, wear noise reducing ear protection, and wear tinted, blue blocking or red lenses if light triggers or worsens migraine onset”.

What if you experience a severe headache or migraine after exercise? The online platform, suggests:

·         Nap or rest in a quiet, dark room.

·         Drink plenty of fluids, especially if vomiting occurs. You are looking to replace electrolytes as well as fluids during and after exercise. A dab of Celtic Sea Salt under the tongue helps replace electrolytes as well as Smart Water and Coconut Water.

·         Use an ice pack or a cool cloth on the forehead or on the area where the pain is stemming from. Avoid humid places. Choose air-conditioned rooms when possible.

·         Include relaxation techniques such as taking a warm bath or shower, meditating (helps to bring down blood pressure and steadies breathing), listening to soft, calming music, listening to audible books or podcasts that relax your mind, sitting quietly with a gentle fan blowing on your skin, getting a massage, etc.

Speak with your doctor if you notice that your headaches get worse with exercise or begin while exercising. This could be a sign of other health issues and only a doctor can work with you to help you find the right path to take for your best healthy routine.


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