Fitness Articles

The Exercise-Headache Connection

How to Prevent Exercise-Related Headaches

  • Employ relaxation techniques.  Tension headaches are the most common type of headache among adults.  Acupressure, yoga and various relaxation techniques have been effective in reducing their frequency and severity.  Although this might not have a direct benefit if you experience exercise-induced headaches, it can only help to begin your workout feeling at-ease.
  • Warm up and cool down longer.  Extend the length of your warm up, slowing increasing the intensity of the workout to give your body time to adjust.  If your normal warm up is 5 minutes, try 10-15 minutes, starting at a very low level of exertion and gradually increasing.  Same goes for the cool down: Try to lower your heart rate slowly—not abruptly—until it is back to pre-exercise levels.
  • Gradually increase workout intensity.  Slowly increase intensity and duration of workouts over a period of weeks and months.  It’s never a good idea to go from being sedentary to running for 30+ minutes, for example. But this advice is even more important when you experience exertion headaches.  
  • Focus on your breath. When weight training, be sure to never hold your breath.  This causes pressure that can easily trigger a headache.  Pay attention to your breathing rate during all forms of exercise, keeping your inhalations as smooth as possible. Get more tips for breathing right during any workout.   
  • Make adjustments as needed.  If you’re planning an outdoor workout on a hot day, consider decreasing the intensity (for example, walking instead of running) or opt for an indoor, air-conditioned workout to avoid the heat.  Find activities you enjoy that don’t exacerbate the problem.  If you can’t find ways to run without head pain during or after the workout, try walking, biking or swimming instead.       
  • Explore medication options.  Assuming you don’t have an underlying medical condition that is causing the headaches, there are methods to help prevent them.  Your doctor might suggest an over-the-counter medicine (such as ibuprophen or aspirin) to be taken as needed. There are also stronger medications the doctor can prescribe.  If the headaches are predictable, medication can be taken an hour or two before activity.  If they are unpredictable, your doctor might suggest taking the medication daily.
While exercise can sometimes be challenging or uncomfortable, it should never be painful. Taking the steps to prevent and treat headaches during your workouts will help you adhere to an exercise program—and reap the benefits of an active lifestyle.

Kordi, Ramin, Mazaheri, R., Rostami, M. and Mansournia, M.A. "Hemodynamic Changes After Static and Dynamic Exercises and Treadmill Stress Test; Different Patterns in Patients with Primary Benign Exertional Headache." Acta Medica Iranica 50 (2012): 399-403. Accessed February 20, 2013.

Mayo Clinic. "Exercise Headaches." Accessed February 20, 2013.

Robert, Teri. "Primary Exertional Headache: The Basics." Accessed February 20, 2013.
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About The Author

Jen Mueller Jen Mueller
Jen received her master's degree in health promotion and education from the University of Cincinnati. A mom and avid marathon runner, she is an ACE-certified personal trainer, health coach, medical exercise specialist and behavior change specialist. See all of Jen's articles.

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