Exercise and Migraine: A Trigger and Preventive Treatment

execise inducced migraine attacks

Do the benefits of physical activity outweigh the risk of exercise-induced migraine attacks? Exercise-induced migraine attacks are something I’ve always dealt with. Despite this, I was an athlete when I was episodic and have always been active even when living with chronic migraine. Exercise has been different at every stage of my life, but an ever-present part. Being active gives me peace. Walking my dog makes me happy (if you don’t follow me on Instagram, I’ve got some great dog content). And going to a gym or studio class keeps me focused and motivated. But the problem is, gyms are so migraine-triggering for me! Exercise-induced migraine symptoms pop up quickly and harshly. So the question begs to ask, why go? Does the gym help with migraine? Why do I get migraine attacks at the gym?

migraine exercise symptoms

Exercise-Induced Migraine Symptoms

Exercise-induced migraine symptoms can include:

  1. Exercise-induced migraine aura
  2. Induced headache
  3. Dizziness
  4. Body aches
  5. Confusion
  6. Sensitivity to light
  7. Sensitivity to sound
  8. Sensitivity to smell
  9. Nausea

gym triggers

Gym Induced Triggers

Exercise-induced migraine triggers can include:

  1. Flashing, bright lights
  2. Loud, pulsing, booming music/sound
  3. Smells: body odor, deodorant, perfume, hair products, cleaning products, and lotions
  4. Dehydration
  5. Heavy lifting or cardio
  6. Low blood sugar
  7. Inadequate sleep
  8. Workout environment

Joining a Gym with Migraine

Lately, I’ve been looking for a gym that is migraine friendly and it’s harder than you would think. Living with chronic migraine has many difficulties.  Some days I work out and feel better, some days I feel worse. It’s a guess and check.

A few months back, I joined a gym that is a big room studio with 1 class running at a time. It was one of those mornings that I had to drive my kids to school when they normally take the bus, they were moving slowly and stressing me out. The stress spiked my migraine but I decided to go to exercise anyway. “Getting there is half the battle,” right? Well, I walked in and as I was taking off my coat to join the class, the instructor asked me to leave! In front of the whole class, she told me I was a danger for joining class 5 minutes late and would have to leave.

Do the benefits of physical activity outweigh the risks of exercise-induced migraine triggers?

First, I was mortified. Second, there was no danger. Third, she interrupted the class more by embarrassing me than if I had slid into the back of the room. I left crying and told them I would not be coming back. Ever! Yet, the automated texts kept coming and coming and coming.  I tried to opt-out, and I replied to stop, I called and complained and they still texted me about upcoming promotions.

Let me just say this…your impersonal emails and texts that you don’t answer are obnoxious. If the actual people that work at your establishment are not willing to connect with the real people going, then please stop trying to virtually sell me anything.

And I say that in all bold because the next gym I joined did the same thing. Lots of emails go to “no one monitors this email address” or do not reply to emails.  Don’t ask me how my experience is if I can’t reply! I go to a gym or studio to connect with people feel their positive vibes and leave the distractions of my home. I had the virtual experience at home and why is it feeling the same in person?

Migraine Attack after or during Exercise

The next gym I joined, I knew I’d love it since I belonged there before COVID-19 and was ready to get back at it. But a lot can change in 2 years. Instructors, of course, changed but I now had this feeling of less human connection. I felt like this virtual participant at home alone yet in this big room of people.

2 different times, I went to a class where the instructor changed the environment.  One day, I went to class and the Barre instructor walked into the quiet dark room, flicked on flashing lights, pumped up the music, and turned our class into a rave. As you can imagine, this was not the class description that I had signed up for. She was yelling, the lights were flying around the room and the music was beating in my head and my stomach. I left and threw up from the exercise-induced headache and nausea as a result.

Can exercise trigger migraine?

The second time was the scariest. And one that seems to haunt me. Once again, the instructor walked into class and changed the vibe.  This exercise-induced migraine hit hard and fast! I stumbled out of the class with not one person noticing I was grasping for the walls. I made it to the locker room where I was so disabled I could not open my locker to call for help.

As I sat having a full-on attack, rocking, holding a towel over my eyes, NO ONE HELPED! The towel woman walked past me without a word. I’m convinced if I was seizing on the floor the only thing she would have picked up was the towel I was desperately grasping to cover the light. A patron put her sweaty butt in my face as I sat crumpled on the bench to squeeze by me.

As I look back at that day, I’m so disappointed in humanity. The staff at that gym should be aware of its members and certainly, call for help when there is an issue with one. It’s sad to me that the public is now so unconcerned about the humans around them. They saw me crying, shaking, rocking, and in distress and they walked by me like nothing. It makes me hesitant to go back.

How Gyms Can Decrease Exercise-Induced Migraine Attacks

So with these experiences, it’s hard not to ask, “Should I skip the gym if I have migraine?” My answer to that is, quite honestly, I don’t know. I’ve had it help and as you read made it so much worse. After those couple of bad stories, I have had many great classes that I walk out of stronger and better. There are some days I go in and am empowered by the people around me and stronger from the greatest workout. Therefore, I’m not willing to give up trying.

Should someone exercise when they are experiencing a migraine episode?

I’m only 1 in the 50+ million people that live with migraine. I refuse to believe this is only my issue and think gyms and studios can do a lot better. Thousands of people live with sensory issues beyond migraine and it seems careless to ignore all of these people trying to move their bodies. I hope that these establishments want to help everybody. And by doing so, they need to reduce sensory triggers to decrease exercise-induced migraine symptoms. So I’ve come up with some advice to make a more migraine and sensory-friendly gym or studio.

exercise-induced migraine attack

Migraine and Sensory-Friendly Gyms and Studios Should

  1. Label your classes and make your instructors stick to them!  ie. flashing lights, type of music, temperature. The environment needs to be stated clearly without altering it.
  2. Provide scentless products in the bathroom
  3. Ask patrons to use less scented products (check out my Barre3 post on how they do it.)
  4. Have a flexible and easy cancellation policy
  5. Have a cafe or snacks available
  6. Staff should be aware of their surroundings and willing to ask if help is needed.  Notice if someone is sick and show kindness and concern.

I’m not giving up on my quest to find a migraine-friendly gym. Until then, I’ll try to remind myself that it’s not my fault. It’s easy to fall down a rabbit hole of feeling sorry for myself and like I can’t get healthier because the world is triggering me. I’m frustrated but know the benefits of physical activity outweigh the negatives most days. And I’m hopeful that gyms and studios will tune into their clients and make them more migraine-friendly.

exercise-induced migraine attacks

Weighted Blanket

Allay Lamp- Green Light Therapy

Headache Hat- Ice Hat

Heat Wrap


Bed of Nails


Sarah Rathsack

Sarah tells stories of My Migraine Life. Living life through Migraine consists of advocacy, treatment, prevention, and searching for health and happiness in a positive honest way. Her kids, husband, dog, family and friends motivate her to make a difference in the Migraine World.

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