Chronic Migraine, Exercise, Triggers

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.

8 thoughts on “Exercising Without Triggering a Migraine or Headache”

  1. Love this post! It can be frustrating to feel motivated and inspired, yet the body has different plans. I teach clients all the time about the importance of starting slowly so that they can stay on track without getting overwhelmed. I love your examples of what worked for you specifically for migraines. Thank you for the insight.

  2. Exercising for three miles without a migraine is MORE of an accomplishment than it is for a healthy person to run a half-marathon, IMO. Congratulations on your efforts.

  3. Thank you for this. I’ve been trying to think of ways to start exercising without triggering a migraine. I think this is a great way to get started.

    As for the bumper sticker, I would so do it. Being able to do anything that would have brought on our arch nemesis and no longer does is a HUGE accomplishment.

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