Moving More, Sitting Less Is Vital During Migraine

Tara Haelle

June 15, 2021

People with migraine tend to have lower levels of physical activity than those without migraine despite the beneficial effects of physical activity on reducing frequency of migraine, according to a presentation at the American Headache Society's 2021 annual meeting.

Though reliable research is sparse overall on how much physical activity people with migraine get, enough exists to reveal the need for clinicians to help patients identify ways to increase their levels of physical activity and make it a habit, said Dale S. Bond, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the Miriam Hospital and Brown University, both in Providence, R.I.

He emphasized the need not only to replace sedentary time with physical activity but also to reduce sedentary time overall.

"It's important to note that because active and sedentary represent different behavioral domains, people can still be active – that is, achieving recommended levels of moderate to vigorous physical activity [MVPA] – but still be highly sedentary because they sit for long hours throughout the day," Bond said. "This is important because MVPA will not necessarily eliminate the health risks of long hours of sitting."

Bond reviewed the existing literature on physical activity and sedentary behavior among patients with migraine. His presentation, "Move More, Sit Less," aimed at finding ways to incorporate more physical activity into the daily lives of those with migraine. Bond began by briefly reviewing the well-established benefits of physical activity, including healthy sleep; cardiovascular, respiratory, musculoskeletal, mental, and cognitive health; and metabolic functioning.

"Physical activity and exercise in particular enhances the functioning of bodily systems, including those that have direct relevance to migraine in its comorbidities," Bond said. "The positive systemic effects of exercise on bodily systems carries potential to reduce migraine severity and related disability and morbidity."

He also explained the ways in which excessive sedentary time can exacerbate migraine triggers. "Long periods of interrupted sitting elevated levels of glucose and fat in the bloodstream, which in turn triggers the immune system to attack the body via inflammation," Bond said. "Low grade chronic inflammation has long been hypothesized to play a role in migraine pathogenesis."

Recommended Levels of Exercise

The World Health Organization and the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services recommends at least 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity or 75-150 minutes of vigorous activity each week. An additional recommendation is at least 2 days per week of muscle strengthening activities that involve all major muscle groups.

While neither of those organizations has specific guidelines on how much reduction of sedentary time is recommended, the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology recommends limiting sedentary time to 8 or fewer hours per day.

Exercise and Migraine

"Unfortunately, at present, we have very few studies from which to draw conclusions about the extent to which individuals with migraine adhere to physical activity and sedentary guidelines," Bond said. Existing studies vary widely in sample types, study design, physical activity measure and MVPA outcome, including the type or definition of MVPA. "This wide variability in measures and outcomes makes it challenging to draw any conclusions about adherence to guidelines among individuals with migraine," he said.

Existing evidence suggests anywhere from 32% to 66% of migraine patients are at least moderately active, though it's not clear what constitutes "moderately active" behavior. It appears that activity levels of patients with migraine are low overall, but it's less clear the extent to which these levels are lower than in controls given the paucity of evidence.

In one of the few studies using objective measures to assess physical activity in migraine patients, the daily level of MVPA was significantly lower in 25 women with migraine than in 25 age- and body mass index–matched women without migraine (P <. 003). Both groups had obesity. The same study found that virtually no women with migraine adhered to the guidelines recommending less than 8 hours a day of sedentary time, compared with 30% of women without migraine.

"Also, low physical activity and high sedentary levels appear to be consistent across headache and nonheadache days," Bond said. "This finding in particular raises an interesting question: If migraine severity is not related to physical activity and sedentary time, what is it about migraine that contributes to an inactive and sedentary lifestyle?"

Bond noted that future research needs to include reports of frequency, duration, and intensity of activities performed as well as the percentage of participants who meet guidelines for physical activity and sedentary time. Ideally, these studies should include not only self-report but also objective measures of activity as well as assess sleep and identify barriers and facilitators to physical activity in patients.

Exercise Avoidance

Bond described findings from survey of 100 women he conducted to better understand potential barriers and reported that 78% of patients report intentionally avoiding physical activity. These patients typically avoided it an average of 4 days per week, regardless of intensity, and additional survey findings found "that participants who reported any avoidance had stronger beliefs that physical activity would both trigger and worsen a migraine attack, compared with participants who reported no avoidance," he said.

That finding matches the clinical experience of Jennifer Robblee, MD, MSc, assistant professor of neurology at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, who viewed the presentation but was not involved with it.

"They often feel that it is a trigger for worsening an attack or, for some people, can actually trigger an attack, and that they feel worse in the midst of an attack when they're exercising," Robblee said in an interview regarding her patients who exercise less frequently. "Since so many of the patients I see have a daily and constant headache, it's about how they can get themselves to start to exercise when something makes them feel worse, even if it makes them feel better in the long run."

Yet, experimental research suggests that physical activity is not necessarily a reliable trigger of migraine attacks and only worsens migraine in a minority of attacks, Bond said, revealing an interesting paradox: "While engaging in regular physical activity is an important migraine management strategy, most individuals in the study reported doing the exact opposite – that is, avoiding physical activity as a management strategy – and this strategy was associated with higher frequency and duration of attacks. Research from our group and others also suggested individuals with migraine could be overestimating the role that physical activity hasn't triggering or worsening of attacks."

Encouraging Patients to Exercise

Since the benefits of physical activity and limiting sedentary time outweigh the potential harms, "some physical activity is better than none," Bond said. To help patients begin increasing their physical activity, he recommended advising them to start with small amounts and then gradually increase frequency, intensity, and duration over time.

Robblee follows a similar approach, taking into account each patient's particular circumstances and any medications they're taking, including the side effects of those medications.

"It's about starting where they are," Robblee said. "Some patients, despite having severe migraine, have built themselves up so they're doing exercise three or four times per week, or every day, and I have other people who never exercise," she said. "For those patients who are very sedentary, if I can get them to start with 5 minutes per week so they have that sense of accomplishment, then that's where I start. Then slowly build it up over time. Like most things in the migraine world, I individualize it for the person."

Bond offered the following specific tips to clinicians in educating and encouraging patients to increase physical activity:

  • Educate patients regarding the short-and long-term benefits of moving more and sitting less, both for their migraines and for overall health.

  • Correct misconceptions about the negative effects of physical activity as it relates to migraines.

  • Personalize the rationale for physical activity to that patient's specific values and personal goals.

  • Encourage patients to use an activity tracker, both for tracking physical activity and sedentary time, and to monitor migraine attacks, stress, energy levels, and fatigue on days they do and do not exercise.

  • Help patients set goals for eventually meeting MVPA recommendations and interrupting prolonged periods of sitting with brief movement breaks.

  • Help patients identify rewards for meeting goals that are tied to the activity, such as new exercise clothing.

  • Encourage patients to identify a consistent time for physical activity each day to establish a habit, "ideally in the morning before barriers and life get in the way," he said.

Eventually, physical activity itself should become intrinsically rewarding, Bond said.

"To limit sitting and encourage more movement throughout the day, we want to make the choice to engage in physical activity easier by adding environmental cues that encourage physical activity," he said. "Conversely, we want to make the choice to engage in sedentary behavior more difficult by increasing the amount of effort that is required to engage in these behaviors."

Robblee found Bond's emphasis on sitting less – distinct from moving more – a helpful frame to consider with her patients. "I really like the approach of looking at it from that approach: in addition to how do we get you up and moving, how much time are you sitting, and how often can you break that up into smaller increments so that you're up more often?" Robblee said. "That sometimes sounds less scary than 'let's get you exercising.' So 'let's get you sitting a little bit less.' I think that is something I might start to adopt."

No external funding was noted. Robblee is a principal investigator for a study sponsored by Eli Lilly and receives stipends for MedLink Neurology and Neurodiem. Bond reported no disclosures.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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