Exercise When You Have Chronic Migraine

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on April 16, 2024
4 min read

Over-the-counter and prescription medications can help manage chronic migraine -- that’s when you have 15 or more headache days a month for 6 months. But so may certain types of physical exercise. That’s because exercise sparks the release of endorphins, your body’s natural painkillers. Here’s what we found.

Research shows regular exercise lowers stress levels and helps you sleep better; stress and poor sleep are common migraine triggers. Exercise can also:

  • Boost mood and self-esteem and ease depression, which commonly occurs with migraine
  • Strengthen certain muscles that may play a role in migraine
  • Ward off obesity, which is linked to migraine

Exercise is often used as a pain management tool for several conditions, such as osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, neck, and back pain. It also helps with disorders that commonly occur with migraine, like depression, anxiety, and sleep issues.

Several large-scale studies associated low levels of routine exercise with more migraine attacks. For example, one European study followed 46,648 people over 11 years to observe the link between head pain and exercise. The study found that those who reported low exercise were more likely to have migraine and nonmigraine headaches issues compared with those who included exercise in their daily routines.

A Korean study looked at the effects of exercise and other lifestyle factors like alcohol, caffeine, and medication overuse in 136 people with chronic migraine for 1 year. Stopping medication overuse and lifestyle changes like exercising and cutting back on alcohol helped 95 of the participants move from chronic migraine to episodic migraine. That’s when you have less than 15 headache days per month.

Researchers noted the study didn’t look at whether exercise alone or preventive medication and stopping medication overuse was the reason. But those who didn’t make these lifestyle changes saw little difference in headache severity.

In summary, the benefits of exercise are widely known, but adding preventive treatments may be your best bet to lower migraine frequency and intensity.

Studies on this are limited. One small Danish study found that intense aerobic exercise like running and indoor or outdoor cycling can lead to headache. Another small Swedish study that looked at the effects of indoor cycling also found that people who reported exercise as a trigger for migraine usually experienced a higher frequency of headache than those who didn’t.

More research is needed.

Here are some exercises to try. Talk to your doctor first to see if these are right for you.

Aerobic exercise. Cardio that gets your heart rate going -- like brisk walking, running, jogging, or swimming -- can strengthen muscles and joints, and release feel-good endorphins. Start slow and watch your pace. Try a 30-minute walk each day. You can add more time and energy to your workouts as you build endurance and stamina.

Yoga. The intentional and mindful movements used in yogacan ease stress -- a major trigger for migraine attacks. One study found that practicing yoga five to six times a week can significantly lower the frequency and intensity of your migraine.

High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). This is a type of training that combines short bursts of high-intensity cardio like running or weightlifting with periods of low-intensity walk or rest. One Scandinavian study found that HIIT can lower the frequency and severity of migraine attacks. But it could also trigger a migraine attack in some because of its intensity.

Start slow and see how your body responds. Work your way up, including a warm-up and cool-down session before and after HIIT. If you’re not sure how to get started, ask a qualified trainer or a physical therapist about it.

Tai chi. It’s a type of body-mind exercise that can improve balance and coordination. It can also lessen pain, depression, and anxiety. One study looked at the effects of tai chi on 82 women between ages 18 and 65 with episode migraines. The women were split into two groups: one that practiced tai chi regularly and one who received some tai chi training at the end of the study.

The group that practiced tai chi for 1 hour a day, 5 days a week for 12 weeks had fewer migraines and better blood pressure compared to the second group.

Before you start any exercise routine, it’s best to check in with your doctor. Once you’re cleared you should:

Pace yourself. This is especially important if you’re new to exercise. Make a plan you’re more likely to stick to in the long run. This will help you stay consistent and motivated to see long-term results. Try to include different types of exercises throughout the week to figure out what you like. Start slow and include warm-up exercises and stretches.

Pick the right gear and equipment. Wear comfortable clothing. If you’re planning to run or walk, wear proper shoes to avoid pain. If you’re planning to lift weights, start with small weights and build your way up.

Check your diet. Physical exercise requires a lot of energy. It’s important to eat healthy, well-balanced foods to fuel your body with energy through the workouts. Drink lots of water to stay hydrated.

Build a support system. Check in with family and friends to keep you going, especially on bad headache days. If severe migraine symptoms make it difficult to leave home, you can always try a virtual workout session online. This way you can stay physically active in the comfort of your own home.

Watch for triggers. As you kickstart a physical exercise routine, pay attention to anything that may trigger a migraine attack. That could be a new exercise, food, or protein drink.