February 2019

Is Exercise Giving You a Headache? 

When it comes to reasons for not working out, the excuses are endless: You don’t have time. The gym is too expensive. You can’t find your running shoes. Your workout gear doesn’t match. 

Woman frowning with her hand to her head

Hey, we’ve all been there. But for some people, exercise is a literal pain—in the head. Exercise headaches can leave you craving your couch. Here’s what you should know about them, how to reduce your risk of getting one, and what you can do if one strikes.

All about that ache

An exercise headache starts during or after activity. You’re more likely to get one while you’re sweating it out during high-intensity aerobic activities such as running and weightlifting.

While doctors aren’t sure of the exact cause of these headaches, they may be linked to the increase in blood pressure in your skull that occurs during exercise. Exercise can also trigger migraines in some people who are susceptible to them. 

Other factors may increase your risk of getting an exercise headache, including:

  • Fatigue

  • Extreme exercise

  • Insufficient warm-up

  • Extreme heat or cold

  • Dehydration

  • Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar

  • Exercising at high altitudes 

Pain, pain go away

To feel the burn without feeling the pain in your head, make sure you’re well rested and correctly fueled and hydrated before you hit the gym. Warm up to let your body get ready for the demands of exercise, especially if you’re working out in hot or cold weather. 

If you do get an exercise headache, back off. Take a break or try less intense exercise. If you’re training for an event or need to maintain your exercise routine, talk with your doctor about medicines that can help prevent the pounding pain. 

Exercise headaches often go away without treatment within 3 to 6 months. But if this is new to you, talk with your doctor to rule out other potential causes.


Headache help

The National Headache Foundation has more information on the different types of headaches.

Online Medical Reviewer: Gonnella, Joseph, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 1/21/2019
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