Migraines: Does Exercise Help or Hurt?

Lately I’ve been writing about some practical topics, but the research geek in me couldn’t stay away for long! Did you know that approximately 36 million people in the United States suffer from migraine headaches. And did you know that those headaches occur most often between the ages of 25-55 when people are the most active and otherwise healthy? Wow, if I was one of those 36,000,000 people, I would be in that age range and I would really wonder, “is this fit lifestyle I’m trying to live helping alleviate my migraines or making them worse?”

Exercise can play an interesting role in the life of a migraine sufferer. On one hand, exercise can induce a migraine, but on the other, the proper kind of exercise can actually help prevent a migraine

Exercise can play an interesting role in the life of a migraine sufferer. On one hand, exercise can induce a migraine, but on the other, the proper kind of exercise can actually help prevent a migraine. I will look at both ends of the spectrum and will give you concrete examples of exercises to avoid and those to do. Along with the exercises, I will give you some stretching tips that may help prevent migraines from occurring. We will also look at the roles serotonin and tryptophan play in effective migraine prevention. I have studied multiple research sources and have compiled the following information that I think you will find helpful.

Exercise Can Induce a Migraine

Exercise can induce a migraine headache. It has been shown that sudden, strenuous exercise can induce a migraine. One example of this is starting a heavy weight lifting routine without first preparing the body for the load you are expecting it to do. This kind of lifting creates a sudden demand for oxygen, which has been found to trigger a migraine. Straining too hard increases intracranial pressure which can precipitate headaches as well. Likewise, doing any kind of strenuous exercise for too long a period of time can have the same effect.

Exercise Can Prevent a Migraine

The right approach to exercise can help prevent migraine headaches from being triggered. If you like to lift weights and strength train, it’s important to have a proper warm up to prepare the body for the task. Working through your first set of reps slowly and with lighter weight properly warms up the muscles and allow you to lift without sudden strain. Proper breathing while lifting can help eliminate straining, thus preventing intracranial pressure. Limiting lifting to 30-40 minutes can also help.  Stretching the chest, shoulders, and neck can be very beneficial post strength training to lengthen the muscle fibers, relieve excessive tension, and help reduce stress. Women (18% of the migraine sufferers), in particular, tend to carry tension and stress in their neck and upper back so stretching is a vital part of a healthy exercise routine.

The Best Exercise Choices

Yoga and Pilates have been found to help prevent migraines along with aerobic exercise. Exercises, such as brisk walking, jogging, swimming, cycling, and dancing are examples of aerobic exercises. Aerobic exercise stimulates the body to release endorphins, which are natural pain controllers in the body.  The amino acid, tryptophan, is also released during exercise. Tryptophan is used in the synthesis and release of serotonin, a chemical that has been shown to affect migraine headaches.  When serotonin levels drop, the blood vessels in the brain swell causing the pain of a migraine. Therefore, when you exercise, the release of tryptophan helps stimulate the release of serotonin and the headache can be kept at bay.

Lifestyle Factors

My research also indicated that many people suffer migraines and never seek medical attention. Consult with a physician and see if proper exercise and  stretching along with hydration and sound nutrition can reduce the occurrence of your migraine headaches. Quality sleep and paying attention to certain foods that you seem to be sensitive to are also helpful. It always comes back to the lifestyle!

Have you ever suffered from migraines? Has exercise helped you or hurt you? Leave a comment and share your experience.


The National Institute of Mental Health
The Migraine Trust
Dr. Weil – Natural Health Information
Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience
Migraine Research Foundation

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