Should I Work Out With A Headache? 5 Important Factors To Consider 

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If you’re nauseous or have a fever, it’s probably quite obvious that you need to nix your workout for the day.

But what if you have a headache? You’ve probably found yourself asking, should I work out with a headache? Is working out with a headache a bad idea, or might it ease the headache and help me feel better?

In this article, we will discuss the pros and cons of working out with a headache, whether you should work out with a headache, and tips for preventing headaches from interfering with your workouts.

We will discuss: 

  • Should I Work Out With a Headache?
  • Does Exercise Help Headaches?

Let’s get started!

A person holding their temples due to a headache.

Should I Work Out With a Headache?

The recommendations for working out with a headache are unclear, as the causes of a headache can be numerous. Some of the potential causes can make it such that working out may improve your headache, whereas working out with a headache in other situations can make the headache worse.

In fact, according to the National Headache Institute, exercise can potentially make a headache worse, depending on the cause of the headache.

Ultimately, it would be nice if we could neatly say that no matter what, you can work out with a headache, but whether or not you should work out with a headache is another story; however, the National Headache Institute reports that there are some potential causes of headaches that are quite severe in which working out with a headache can be quite dangerous.

Therefore, although these instances are rare, it cannot be said that it’s always safe to work out with a headache.

We will discuss the common causes of headaches and instances in which it is safe and even potentially helpful to exercise with a headache, along with times when headaches are caused by serious underlying medical issues wherein working out with a headache is contraindicated.

It is up to you to make your own decisions about whether you feel it is safe or helpful to work out with a headache, but we highly recommend speaking with your healthcare provider if you are indeed concerned about some of the potentially serious medical causes of certain headaches.

Someone holding the side of their head.

Does Exercise Help Headaches?

When asking yourself, can I work out with a headache, take the different causes of headaches into consideration.

Let’s take a look at the potential causes or factors that can contribute to developing a headache.

#1: Tension Headaches

One of those common types of headaches is a tension headache, which is caused by muscle tension in the head, neck, or elsewhere in the body.

In these cases, exercise can definitely help improve your headache.

Working out can decrease stress and will increase circulation to your muscles, potentially reducing stiffness and tension, opening up blood vessels, and increasing blood flow to the brain.

One of the good things about working out with a headache in general, even if you are not sure of the underlying cause of the headache, is that if you begin with some light exercise, you should be able to get an idea of whether exercising is helping your headache or making it worse within a matter of several minutes.

A person holding the back of his head due to a tension headache.

For example, if you were planning on doing a 5-mile run but you have a pretty bad headache, you can start with some brisk walking or easy jogging for a few minutes. If you find that your head is pounding and thundering, you should stop and walk home or consider some lower-impact exercise such as walking or riding an exercise bike.

You can then see if reducing the impact on your body while still being physically active helps ameliorate your headache symptoms or continues to make the headache worse.

In many cases, the jarring nature of running and other high-impact exercises can jostle your head and neck and contribute to increasing tension and pressure in your head, which will make working out with a headache worse. 

However, if you switch to a low-impact exercise, you might find that working out with a headache actually improves the severity of your headache rather than making it worse.

One caveat here is swimming. Even though swimming is essentially a non-impact activity, swimming can often make a headache worse.

There is often some amount of breath holding, even if you are a skilled swimmer and very comfortable in the water; the added hydrostatic pressure from being underwater can sometimes increase the severity of a headache.

Of course, you can always try a couple of minutes of easy swimming if you have a headache and see how you feel, but you might want to swap your swimming workout for an above-water activity when you have a headache before your workout begins.

A hiker outside, dehydrated from the sun.

#2: Dehydration 

Another common cause of headaches is dehydration. When you are dehydrated, working out with a headache will make the headache worse because you will be further dehydrating your body.

During exercise, we sweat and lose more body water through increased respiration (losing water vapor as we exhale).

Unless you properly rehydrate before your workouts, you will likely find that just drinking the normal amount of fluid that you typically take in during a workout will not be enough to counteract the dehydration that has caused your headache in the first place.

If you are trying to troubleshoot why you have a headache in the first place and discover that you have not been hydrating well during the day, it’s advisable to try to rehydrate as fast as possible and push the workout off for an hour or so to allow your body time to absorb your fluids before exercising. 

Adding electrolytes to your water can help increase the rate of absorption so that you can restore optimal hydration status sooner, resolve your headache, and get on with your workout.

A runner doubled over with a headache.

#3: Fatigue

If you slept really poorly or have not been getting an adequate amount of sleep, or if you are otherwise exhausted for one reason or another, you may develop a headache from being overtired.

Here, deciding whether or not to work out with a headache really comes down to the type of workout you have planned, how tired you are, your overall health, and how poorly you slept.

#4: Low Blood Sugar

In the way that dehydration can cause a headache, low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia can also result in a headache. Additional symptoms of low blood sugar can include irritability, hunger, lightheadedness, low energy, and shakiness.

Again, as with the case of working out when you are dehydrated, exercising when you have low blood sugar is only going to exacerbate the issue.

A person holding the sides of her temples due to a headache.

Plus, with severe hypoglycemia, your balance, coordination, decision-making ability, and strength are impaired. Therefore, working out with a headache due to low blood sugar is inadvisable.

If you still want to get your workout in, have a high-carbohydrate snack, such as fresh or dried fruit, fig newtons, gram crackers, fruit juice, applesauce, a granola bar or energy bar, or a bowl of cereal, before your workout. This will help increase your blood sugar levels more rapidly. 

You can also have a sports drink during your workout to help replenish blood sugar and glycogen levels as you exercise.

However, if you have type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes, or other problems regulating your blood sugar and insulin levels, you should take more caution with restoring your blood sugar levels before engaging in exercise. 

Discuss blood sugar management with your doctor if this is a consistent or recurring issue. You may need to make adjustments to your diet or medication regimen.

A person getting out of bed, holding his head.

#5: Migraines 

Many people suffer from migraines, and the cause of migraine headaches is still somewhat unclear. When experiencing a migraine headache, you often have sensitivity to light, and you also experience other visual disturbances, such as the presence of an aura.

Working out with a migraine often makes the headache worse. However, every individual who experiences migraines may have a somewhat different response.

If you have a migraine and would like to try exercise, it might be best to do a workout at home in a dimly-lit room.

Commercial gyms often have harsh overhead lights or fluorescent lighting, which may be quite bothersome when you have a migraine. Fresh air can be helpful, but if it is really bright and sunny out, you may be bothered by the light.

Overall, working out with a headache may or may not be helpful.

In most cases, it doesn’t hurt to try some light exercise and then assess whether your headache is getting better or worse. However, if you have a known cause of the headaches, such as dehydration or low blood sugar, you should work to rectify the issue causing the headache before engaging in exercise. 

Most importantly, if you have an underlying medical condition that might be causing a concerning headache, you should seek medical attention immediately and certainly hold off on working out.

Now that we’ve answered your question, “can I work out with a headache” why don’t we look into some other common ailments, such as a cold? For our guide on whether or not you should work out with a cold, click here.

A person covered in a blanket on the couch with a cold.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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