Migraine and exercise

Yesterday I did 40 minutes of yoga. Today I found lifting my pillows difficult.

My social media feeds are full of friends reporting their latest runs and excitement over personal bests. My friends are motivated by improvements – shaving a few more seconds off their mile, lifting a few pounds more, losing a few pounds. Fitness tracking is geared towards these kinds of motivations, but I find it really demoralizing.

Migraine puts me flat on my back for days or weeks at a time. Even when movement isn’t painful, I’m often unnaturally weak. If I were a runner, I’d be running that first painful mile every few months. When encouraging their friends to exercise, people often talk about how hard it was to get started with exercise, to develop the habit, to push past the initial discomfort and awkwardness of exercising with an out of shape body. But once past that hurdle, exercise turns into a fun and even addictive way of improving their lives.

Before you encourage your sick friends to get moving, consider how how long you’d exercise if you had to start over every few months. If you fell back several steps every few weeks. If your medication made you gain weight regardless of activity levels. If exercise intense enough to cause an endorphin high instead triggered incredible pain.

I’ve been meaning to write about my experience with migraine and exercise for awhile. I’m finally getting around to it after reading Kerrie’s latest on the subject. For me, the trick to exercising with migraines is finding activities and motivations that don’t revolve around going harder or longer or stronger but instead make it easier to live with migraine. Tracking that at least gives me the illusion of progress is helpful, too.

My solutions so far are yoga, walking, and Fitocracy.

Being sick a lot can create this weird mind-body disconnect; I can start to feel like my body is an enemy, something I’m constantly fighting or negotiating with. Yoga helps me put myself back together.

I started doing Ashtanga yoga 5 years ago, but I’ve only once made it halfway through the primary series. Usually I don’t progress that far before I have a bad bout of migraines and I’m back at the beginning, doing easy versions of poses just to get thru sun salutations without shaking. I’m mostly ok with that. I like yoga because wherever I am in my practice is just fine. And even when I can’t practice as long as I’d like or when I have to do “easy” versions of poses, I can keep improving the mental side of my practice and making small discoveries about my body in different poses. Plus, unlike in a lot of other fitness subcultures, there isn’t much judgement from other practitioners about being weak. It also helps undo the stiffness of spending a week racked with pain.

Using walking as my primary means of transportation also fits into my life with migraine. I can go slow or fast depending on how I feel and it doesn’t feel like something extra – I’ve got to get to work and buy groceries and walking is one way to do that. It also lets me fit in some solid reflection, time with trees, and language lessons.

I like to use Fitocracy to keep track of exercise because its rewards are cumulative, not comparative. Even if I’m so weak I can only do 15 minutes of yoga or have to lie down after a 20 minute walk, I get points that push me closer to the next level. And no matter how few points I get, it tells me I’m awesome.

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  1. Karen says:

    I’m happy yoga helps. I was talking with a very experienced yoga teacher when I was in the midst of lots of stress/burnout at work. She said something about paying attention to my energy in order to know how far to go in my practice. A total “duh!” moment: it was the first time it dawned on me that I should literally pay attention to my physical energy instead of just driving forward.

    A lesson I’m still trying to learn.

    Enjoy your practice.

    • sarcozona says:

      One of the (sort of) good things about migraines is that they make it very clear where my limits are. I rarely have to wonder if my diet or sleep or exercise habits are “right” – I get very direct feedback from my body!

  2. JBYoder says:

    Well, frack. I’ve definitely done the #rundouchery thing—the hashtag’s supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, but maaaybe it’s a bit too close to plain old unironic #douchery.

    It may not be apparent, but I remember, long before I started running, thinking that friends who ran were kind of insufferable in their assumption that just anyone could do what they did if we’d only put in the effort. But I’m glad Fitocracy’s worked out as a good motivator!

    And: if I had to put money on it, I’d guess that walking and yoga are a more likely to help you live to a healthy old age than running marathons.

    • sarcozona says:

      I actually kind of love #rundouchery and #bikedouchery because it does poke fun at people who are “kind of insufferable in their assumption that just anyone could do what they did if we’d only put in the effort.” What I was trying to get at is 1) don’t be like those insufferable people and 2) if you have migraines or other chronic illness, you might need exercise motivations/strategies that are different from most people’s.

      Also, I really love the photos you take on your runs!

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