For headache and migraine sufferers, having a consistent exercise routine could be a game-changer.
woman swimming
Credit: Uwe Krejci/Getty Images

Living under a rock and don’t know all the endless ways exercise can make you a better human? Here are the CliffsNotes: It reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, improves metabolic rate, lowers resting heart rate, regulates hormones, decreases the risk for serious conditions such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, improves mood, and increases energy...among a litany of other benefits. (You get the point.)

Another bonus you might not know about, though, is one that will make anyone who’s ever had a throbbing, nauseating migraine listen up. While exercising is probably the last thing you want to do if you’re dealing with a debilitating migraine (also, just don’t because science shows even light physical activity can worsen headache pain), building frequent, aerobic exercise into your schedule has been shown to prevent the onset of those migraines in the first place.

Yep, according to the American Migraine Foundation (AMF) not only can working up a sweat decrease the frequency of migraines but also the intensity when they do hit you.

In fact, one study found that just 40 minutes of exercise three times a week was just as effective at preventing a migraine attack as taking prescription migraine medication. Plus, getting up and moving is one of the first things experts recommend you do post-migraine to start feeling better.

Here’s what happens: During exercise, the body releases endorphins and endocannabinoids, a hormone and lipid molecule, respectively, which both naturally reduce pain and boost your mood. Not to mention, “exercise can help reduce stress and improve sleep, which in turn can help reduce headache frequency,” says Sara Crystal, M.D., neurologist, headache specialist, and medical advisor for Cove, a service providing FDA-approved headache and migraine pain treatments. (BTW, stress, especially sudden increases or even decreases in stress, as well as poor sleep health are common precipitants, or “triggers”, of migraines.)

As with most migraine prevention strategies, consistency is key when it comes to harnessing this power of exercise, says Elizabeth Seng, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University. (P.S. The same was found to be true with mindfulness meditation. Current research indicates that a frequent meditation practice helps prevent migraines more so than the amount of time spent meditating, according to Seng.)

As for the type of exercise that seems to help the most? While it’s not known whether one activity is best for migraine prevention, experts, including the AMF, recommend aerobic activity or moderate, endurance-based workouts, such as cycling versus swimming.

For what it’s worth though, science is also digging into whether HIIT workouts (i.e. sprints), which also call on the anaerobic energy pathways for quick bursts of work, can elicit the same results. And results of one study found that not only can increasing the intensity of your workout help prevent migraines, but HIIT might even do a better job at prevention than moderate, steady-state activity.

Bottom line: If you suffer from migraines, making time for fitness now will help you have fewer migraines days later. Don’t suffer from head pain? Remember that first paragraph with the laundry list of health benefits? Yeah, just exercise anyway, people.