Can cardio actually help to relieve migraine pain?

Migraines are more than a headache – they can be seriously debilitating. But that doesn’t mean that movement can’t help to soothe and manage symptoms, as The Migraine Trust confirms. We chatted to the experts to find out how to manage the debilitating neurological disease with the power of exercise. 

We have exercise to thank for many things. Not only can regular physical activity improve heart health, beat stress and work towards preventing Alzheimer’s disease, but it can also help us sleep better and lift our mood. One thing that you might not already have on your “reasons why we love exercise” list, however, is its ability to help reduce how frequently and painfully you experience migraines.

“We know exercise is very good for managing stress and managing overall wellbeing,” Una Farrell from The Migraine Trust tells Stylist, “and when it comes to migraines, your overall wellbeing can make a big difference in keeping an attack at bay.” While exercise can’t “cure” the long-term neurological condition or get rid of migraine attacks forever, Una points out that “physical activity can help reduce (migraine) frequency and severity.”

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How can exercise help with migraines? 

According to The Migraine Trust – the charity that funds research, evidence-based information and supports people affected by migraine – headache researchers are finding more and more evidence to suggest that regular moderate aerobic exercise can be “effective in preventing migraine”.

One 2019 study concluded that “aerobic exercise therapy can decrease the number of migraine days,” while another more recent report confirmed that “aerobic exercise can decrease the pain intensity, frequency and duration of migraine and can also increase quality of life.”

Before you reach for your running trainers, it’s important to note that there are other studies that suggest movement can be a migraine trigger.The name given for these types of attacks are exercise-induced migraines and they are most often associated with “vigorous or strenuous sports or activities”.

“If you don’t do any exercise and then you suddenly run 10 miles, that can trigger an attack,” advises Farrell. “The key with using exercise as a tool to help reduce the frequency and severity of a migraine, is to build it up over time and listen to your body.”

Farrell also suggests being mindful of:

  • Your overall health and wellbeing
  • Sensitivity to light
  • The amount of sleep you are getting
  • Your water intake
  • Your food intake and making sure to fuel your body with all the nutrients it needs 

As ever, exercise needs to be seen in a holistic light – what you do outside of the gym/track and how well you recover is as important when living with migraines as it is for everyone else. Sleep, hydration, refuelling – it all matters.

What are migraines? 

So, how do you distinguish between a regular headache and a migraine? According to the NHS, a migraine is described as “a moderate or severe headache felt as a throbbing pain on one side of the head.” Many people living with migraines may also suffer from increased sensitivity to light or sound, dizziness, and others may feel or be sick.

The latest data states around 10 million people in the UK aged 15-69 experience migraines, with the condition – which has been ranked by the NHS as one of the top 20 pains that humans can experience – affecting around one in five women, compared with around one in 15 men.

“The reason why far more women than men get migraines is because of hormonal changes,” Farrell explains. “But for any sufferer, the painful and often debilitating condition can impact all aspects of their life.”  Anyone who lives with migraines knows only too well how detrimental episodes can be on the ability to work, relationships, important life events and mental health.

“That’s because migraines are often reoccurring,” Farrell says. “It’s also an ‘invisible’ condition that you might not even know someone is living with.”

One 2019 study concluded that “aerobic exercise therapy can decrease the number of migraine days”.

What causes migraines and how can they be cured?

That’s the million-dollar question. It’s believed that migraines are the result of “abnormal brain activity temporarily affecting nerve signals, chemicals and blood vessels in the brain”. When it comes to the cure, however, the jury is still out. One thing we do know, however, is that – as Farrell puts it – “migraine brains don’t like change”.

She explains: “It could be a change in stress levels, either going from an extreme state of stress to a really relaxed state of mind, it could be a change in your sleeping pattern or water intake. All of these changes can trigger a migraine.” 

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How to move with migraine

Going back to that 2019 study, aerobic activity might be something worth trying if you do live with migraines. Try to get outdoors when it’s cooler and take advantage of being in nature as a way of reducing stress. 

“Moderate aerobic exercise is the type of exercise that gets your heart rate up,” says Farrell. “It allows you to really release tension without exerting yourself and overdoing it. This type of exercise helps to manage your stress – which we know can be a trigger for migraines. It also contributes to overall wellbeing, which plays a massive factor when it comes to managing and preventing the condition.”

Whether it’s walking for half an hour and then running for five minutes, or running for half an hour and walking for five minutes – here’s a list of aerobic exercises to try:

  • Jogging
  • Swimming
  • Brisk walking
  • Dancing
  • Cycling

“Just remember, it’s not a competition,” reminds Farrell. “Go at your own pace and do something you enjoy. Just enjoy moving.”

If you live with migraines, talk to your GP before embarking on a new fitness routine to make sure that you’re moving as safely as possible. 

For more exercise tips, check out the Strong Women Training Club library, which is full of workout videos, training plans and healthy recipes to support your training.

Images: Getty

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