Your Headache Exercise Program – Starting is Half Done

New Year’s Resolutions

Common New Year’s Resolutions include managing weight, relieving life stress and starting to exercise more! Once you have made up your mind to really follow through this time, you are halfway to your goal already. Let’s look at that exercise goal and see how it applies to your migraine.

Exercise increases your overall strength, muscle flexibility and endurance. In addition, you help your headaches with exercise to decrease your stress, ease depression, help regulate your fluctuating blood sugar levels and improve your sleep. All these factors tie in directly to your tension and migraine headache problem.

Research reports varying results of exercise on migraines. However, the study below may offer some guidelines that may be useful for you.

What Results Could I see From an Exercise Program?

A study at a headache clinic evaluated the effect of exercise on 20 female patients between the ages of 36 and 63 years old. 40 minutes of cycling workouts significantly decreased the number of headache days per month, as well as the intensity of the headaches and the amount of medication taken. Read more about the study by Varkey, Cider, Carlsson and Linde in the 2009 article in the Journal of Head and Face Pain, A study to Evaluate the Feasibility of an Aerobic Exercise Program in Patients with Migraine.

Be Aware of Your Heart Muscle, the Most Important Muscle You Have!

The study recommended an exercise level to improve and maintain fitness at 3-5 days per week, 20-60 minutes at 55-90% of your maximum heart rate. However, you may not know what your maximum heart rate is. Therefore, consult your doctor to establish the right level for you.

As a physical therapist I find that too many people take their hearts for granted. They do not pay attention to what the heart is doing in terms of monitoring their heart rate and any potential arrhythmia.

Consequently, their leg and arm muscles do more than their heart muscle can safely do and so they push harder than they should.  Their hearts may be in a red zone, even skipping beats as they push their hearts to the edge of their cardiac limits!

We all know about the heart attacks that occur when that limit is surpassed! Therefore, please be aware of what your heart is telling you and listen to it. Do not huff and puff with activity! You likely are pushing yourself farther than you should.

Decrease activity intensity if you go past your acceptable heart rate range. In addition, pay attention to make sure your heart rate returns to baseline level in several minutes.

Watch your heart rate to see if it stays elevated for a prolonged period. If so, you have pushed your heart too hard. Do not do exercise activity incorrectly as it may be harmful. Therefore, use caution and work with your licensed healthcare provider when you devise an exercise program.

What Type of Exercise Should I Do for My Headaches?

Do whatever exercise you like to do. At worst, do whatever exercise you dislike the least! Many people find the motivation to exercise hard to come by. Their “get up and go got up and went.” However, I find that once you see the direct link between exercise and feeling better, be encouraged to keep the program rolling.

You may prefer cycling exercises as mentioned above (just avoid hunching your back when you cycle). Walk with your arms turned outward and shoulders dropped. Do scapular squeezes with your theraband as you practice proper breathing techniques.

Do you like treadmill workouts? A humble recommendation is to increase the angle of your treadmill up higher to about 10 degrees IF doing so does not hurt. Why? You do not need to walk as fast to get the same cardiac workout. You can slow down because you are at a higher angle. However, MAKE SURE your heart rate is in the target zone you and your doctor have established.

You activate more of your abdominal muscles, along with your gluteal muscles, when you walk on an increased grade. Your knees do not fully straighten out, so you may not strain them as much either. You may also decrease compression to your low back if you walk up an incline.

Picture the reverse scenario when you go downhill. Your belly sticks out. You arch backwards and create compression on your low back. Your knees work hard to stop you from going down the hill too quickly.

How Could Exercise Worsen My Headaches?

Exercise that dehydrates you can trigger a headache. Exercise intense enough to deplete your blood sugar could lead to a headache by creating instability in your blood sugar levels. Drink plenty of water and eat foods with a low glycemic index. Low glycemic index means that food releases sugar more slowly you’re your bloodstream. Examples would be sweet potatoes and apples. Do not eat high glycemic foods that are not helpful to you such as donuts and cookies.

Exercise triggers exertional headaches in some people. Strain the trunk muscles or cough excessively and you may trigger these headaches.

Are You a Heat or Cold Responder?

If you like heat to soothe your migraine, do gentle aerobic exercise. The aerobic exercise increases your body temperature. As a result, the warmth of increased circulation may provide a welcome sensation on your head.

On the other hand, if your headache throbbing and pain is lessened when you apply cold, I find that you will be less likely to perceive any exercise benefit. You prefer an ice pack, a bag of frozen vegetable or a cool, damp washcloth applied to your scalp to be an answer. Therefore, your goal is to constrict the inflamed blood vessels on your head, not expand them via aerobic exercise.

One of my clients was a young lady who reported she felt wonderful when she walked outside in 15-degree-above-zero weather and let the gentle (!) winter wind blow on her head. Having just gone through a spate of winter weather reaching 23-degree-below-zero this January in western Wisconsin-eastern Minnesota, I wonder how she would have fared at these temperatures!

We brainstormed on different ideas to keep her head cool. She came up with the idea of placing a damp stocking cap into the freezer to be used as her headache presented itself. Of course, she reported that treadmill activity increased her headache as her body warmed up, so activity for her was limited in scope.

Headache Exercise Programs are Custom-Made

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to exercise. Find out what you like to do. Decide how many times a week you realistically will follow through. Determine what length of time you can tolerate working out.

Discuss with your doctor whether your program is helpful for both your heart and head. Throw on some of your favorite music to enhance the enjoyment of your workouts and have at it! Your headaches will be less troublesome in the long run.



-You understand that if not done properly, some techniques and exercises described in this blog could harm you. Any activities you perform are at your own risk, and you expressly agree to waive any claims against the author for any harm that may arise from your own actions. By reading this blog and conducting these exercises, you accept this risk. This blog provides content related to physical and/or mental health issues. As such, your use of techniques described acts as your acceptance of this disclaimer.

-Consult Chapter 2 in my book, “Calming the Headache Storm” to make sure the headache is not the sign of a more serious problem. The techniques, advice and strategies contained in this blog may not be suitable for every individual and should be abandoned if your headache increases. Seek the advice of your physician.

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