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Exercising Without Triggering a Migraine or Headache

Regular exercise can reduce the frequency and severity of migraine attacks and other types of headaches… unfortunately, it can also trigger them. Finding the balance between enough and too much exertion can be difficult. I’ve tried a variety of ways of getting back in shape without triggering migraines. My current program, Couch-to-5k, is the most successful.

Couch-to-5k (or C25K) uses interval training to move people from being sedentary to able to run a 5k race in eight weeks. Exercising for about 30 minutes three times a week, participants start out walking more than jogging, then inverse the ratio until they can jog for a solid three miles. Even though I’m only walking and have no plan to do a 5k, this program is the most effective way I’ve found to increase the speed and distance of my walks without triggering a migraine.

Following a five-minute warm-up, I spend the next 20 minutes walking at intervals (guided by an app for my phone that tells me when to change speeds), then do a cool-down. Initially, my walking/walking-faster intervals were 2.3 MPH and 2.8 MPH; I’ve worked up to 3.3 MPH and 4 MPH. I now walk almost 2 miles per session in about 35 minutes. That’s my current workout, my goal is to walk at 4 MPH for 3 miles.

The program is intended for three exercise days a week. I’m trying to walk daily, which means I actually do about three times a week. Some weeks I don’t exercise at all and that’s OK, too. That’s life with chronic illness.

Whether you do a couch-to-5k program or your own exercise plan, the key is to increase your exertion v-e-r-y slowly. Say you walk for a mile at 2.5 MPH and you get a migraine or headache — slow down to 2.2 MPH the next time and see how that goes. If that speed is still a problem, slow down even more. When I first started exercising in the spring, I walked at 1.8 MPH, which felt like a crawl. But, even barely exercising was still more exercise than I was getting before and I was building the foundation for increasing the intensity in the future.

People put 26.2 and 13.1 stickers on their cars. I doubt I’ll advertise my 3, though it will be as big of an achievement for me as a healthy person running a marathon. On second thought, I might stick a 3 on my car. Can you imagine the looks on people’s faces when I say proudly that I can walk briskly for 3 miles without triggering a migraine?

Looking for other ways to avoid migraines or headaches while exercising? See these great tips on exercising with headache or migraine from ACHE.

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Making Room for Restorative Activities

Baking. Attending yoga classes. Dancing to live music. Traveling with Hart. These disparate activities have a vital common thread: they restore me. How bad the migraines are, money, time, concert schedules, and even which migraine diet I’m on influence how often I do each thing, but at least one of these activities has to be a constant in my life for me to remain emotionally stable. They’re so crucial that I prioritize them unwittingly. Until this summer.

After I went off antidepressants, I was feeling off-kilter. I kept trying to pinpoint why. Was it because I’d stopped the drugs? Was it the weather? Was I homesick? Missing Hart? Bored? Lonely? Grieving my migraine losses? I finally figured it out this past week when, after returning home from Seattle, I went back to yoga for the first time since April and felt a deep calm that’s been elusive: I’ve barely engaged in any of my restorative activities in months.

How I Got Off-Kilter
In April, my yoga studio moved to a newly remodeled building. Even though they used eco-friendly materials to create the beautiful new space, the outgassing was too overwhelming for this sensitive migraineur. I looked for other studios, but couldn’t find another within a 30-minute drive that had frequent gentle classes.

Part of the reason I love to bake is that I love to eat baked goods. There are no “safe” baked goods on my current diet, so I haven’t been baking much. I still bake for others occasionally, but instead of being a relaxing endeavor, it feels fraught with danger.

Funk, world music, and jam bands are pretty rare occurrences in the Phoenix area. Having a band in town on a night I feel up to dancing and playing early enough it won’t wreck my migraine-dictated sleep schedule is even rarer. Hart and I have traveled to shows and festivals in the past, but that’s on hold while we’re launching TheraSpecs.

In fact, all travel is on hold while we’re living on an entrepreneur’s shoestring budget and dedicating all our time to TheraSpecs. Hart did spend a great week with me in Seattle, which was our first vacation in a couple years. Yay for frequent flier miles and friends who let us stay at their houses!

Prioritizing Rejuvenation
When I was desperately ill, I managed to work at least one of my necessary activities into my life. Now that I’m feeling better and more functional in years, I let them slide. This seemed ironic at first, though it makes sense upon further reflection — I’m no longer constantly craving rejuvenation. But, whether I’m aware of it or not, I still desperately need it. In fact, it may be even more important now that I no longer focus all my energy and attention on taking care of myself.

Unless tickets for this weekend’s Phish shows in Colorado fall out of the sky, yoga will be my revitalizer for the foreseeable future. I’m hoping to rejuvenate and get back into shape. Thankfully, the yoga studio has aired out enough to no longer be a migraine trigger.

What About You?
What activities restore you? Does your headache disorder interfere with them? Do you have to make time for them or do you do so without even realizing it?

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Pedometer Apps: Highlighting My Substandard Exercise Acheivements

Exercising outside is one of the most enticing parts of summer in Seattle. To avoid triggering a migraine attack, I wanted to keep my exertion level about the same as it has been on the treadmill at home, so I downloaded some pedometer apps for my phone.

How demoralizing! These apps are designed to encourage healthy people whose only obstacle is a lack of motivation to get moving. They aren’t intended for someone who desperately wants to exercise more, but has to be very careful not to overdo it. The app I used first has a preset goal of 10,000 steps a day with a scale indicating what my level of fitness is.* After 2,200 steps, that scale still declares me “sedentary.” Trust me, I KNOW I’m sedentary and that walking a 20 minute mile doesn’t constitute impressive exercise. I don’t need an app to remind me that the best I can do right now is substandard.

Instead of feeling good about the one mile that I walked — and the beautiful view of Lake Washington that I glimpsed — I came home nearly in tears. I want to be physically fit. I want to walk 10,000 steps a day. I want to leave a yoga class with my muscles aching. I want to run for miles. Yet, what I want and what my body can currently handle are not in alignment.

Couch-to-5k? A hardcore seven-minute high-intensity interval workout? I’m there. Well, I would be if my body didn’t react with a migraine that would lead to at least three days on the couch. Trying harder, exerting more is a perfectly fine option for a lot of people. For me, it’s counterproductive.

I’ve (mostly) let go of the belief that having chronic migraine means my body is broken. Carrying around that sense of betrayal constantly highlighted what was lacking in my life and my body. Rather than dwell on what I can’t do, I try to revel in what I can do. That works most of the time. Then I use an app that reminds me that even though I’m exerting myself at my current maximum, my effort — and perhaps my very self — is deficient.

*I know these apps are intended to count one’s total daily steps and I’m only using them for active exercise. If I carried my phone around with me constantly and saw the steps around the house add up, I’d either be pleasantly surprised or even more dismayed. I choose ignorance.

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Migraine & Exercise

Regular exercise can reduce the frequency and severity of migraine attacks. Exercise is also a well-known migraine trigger. I explore my attempt to strike a balance in “Riverdance” — Migraine & Exercise on Migraine.com.

This post is in response to today’s Migraine & Headache Awareness Month blog challenge question, Have you found a way to work exercise or movement into your life with migraine/headache disorder? What is it?

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Exercise-Triggered Migraine Attacks

A half mile in 10 minutes on the treadmill, a gentle yoga class and dancing at a wedding. What do these three activities have in common? They’ve all triggered migraine attacks in the last month. It seems so unfair to get a migraine when I’m doing something good for my body — especially when that’s celebrating at a wedding! Alas, dwelling on what’s fair can only lead to a pity party. Time to figure out how to cope.

Following Diana Lee’s recommendations for coping with exercise as a migraine trigger, I plan to start with a slow 10 minutes a day on the treadmill, then increase my speed and duration gradually each week. Of course, this assumes an upward trajectory of migraine improvement. The reality of life with chronic migraine will probably intervene. (Is that pessimistic or merely realistic?)

A friend gets exercise-induced migraines whenever she starts running again after falling out of her routine. She just puts up with them for three weeks and then they stop. Although my general philosophy is to avoid migraines as much as possible, I might use her strategy for yoga. First, though, I’ll try backing off a bit in class tonight. I felt so good at my last class that maybe I just pushed too hard.

Once again I appear to be in need of balance. Why is that such a difficult lesson to learn?