Two women practice pilates in a studioShare on Pinterest
Melanie DeFazio/Stocksy United

Migraine and headache are terms that are sometimes used interchangeably, but they’re not the same. Migraine is a chronic, neurological disorder, and headaches are only one of several symptoms.

If you’re living with migraine, you may have experienced migraine after exercise, or it’s possible you even found some relief from symptoms after you got moving.

Exercise is generally recommended for all people with migraine. It’s been shown to decrease the frequency of attacks, as well as reduce stress and poor sleep, both of which are migraine triggers, according to the American Migraine Foundation (AMF).

If you’re researching ways to stay fit while living with migraine, you may have heard about Pilates.

Pilates is a form of low impact exercise focused on mindful movement. It’s generally suitable for all ages and abilities.

Joseph Pilates developed this exercise method in the 1920s to provide rehabilitation to soldiers returning from war. Originally called “contrology,” Pilates aims to coordinate the body, mind, and spirit with an emphasis on:

  • breath
  • spinal alignment
  • core strength

You can practice Pilates individually or in a group. Some exercises require nothing more than a floor mat, while others use specialized equipment.

A good Pilates instructor will guide you through exercises that are appropriate for your level and allow you to build skills at your own pace.

Pilates practice can help improve:

  • posture
  • joint mobility
  • muscle tone
  • balance
  • overall strength
  • flexibility

It may also relieve tension and stress, as well as reduce pain and disability.

As is the case with trying any new fitness activity, you should check with your doctor first if you have a medical condition.

More research needs to be done to understand the effects of Pilates on migraine.

Cardiovascular exercises that elevate your heart rate, such as jogging, cycling, and swimming, are recommended to help improve migraine symptoms. Pilates doesn’t always raise your heart rate in the same way, since it’s more focused on building strength and flexibility.

However, Pilates may still benefit people experiencing migraine symptoms.

Neck and back pain relief

Pilates may help relieve chronic back and neck pain. Though migraine attacks are neurological in origin and often caused by changes in hormone levels, some people with migraine report that back and neck pain increase their migraine symptoms.

A 2019 review of studies found a link between lower back pain and headache disorders. The researchers looked at 14 studies that examined several types of headaches, including migraine and tension headache. Lower back pain was consistently more common among people with headache disorders than those without.

If you have back pain, you should check with your doctor before trying Pilates or any new type of exercise. It’s important to be aware of the causes and limitations, if any, of your particular condition.

However, if your back pain is the result of weak abdominal muscles, Pilates may help strengthen your core and potentially reduce symptoms that are related to back pain.

Pilates may also improve pain more generally. According to the AMF, regular exercise can release endorphins, which are natural painkillers.

Improved posture

Poor posture may increase migraine symptom frequency and severity. The AMF recommends core and back strengthening exercises to improve posture, which can ease migraine symptoms. Pilates is one such exercise.

Stable or reduced blood pressure

Elevated blood pressure during exercise can trigger migraine symptoms.

Pilates is a good exercise option for people who need to prevent exercise-induced hypertension, because the movements are slow and controlled and unlikely to cause sudden increases in blood pressure.

Pilates may actually lower blood pressure, according to a small 2020 study that included middle-aged adults with hypertension. After only one Pilates session, participants experienced a 5 to 8 mm Hg reduction in blood pressure during the 60 minutes after exercise.

Certain types of movements can sometimes trigger migraine attacks. To reduce the chance of experiencing symptoms from exercise, avoid exercise maneuvers that involve:

  • turning your head or body quickly
  • bowing or bending over
  • sudden or forceful exertion

Before any exercise session, the AMF recommends:

  • staying hydrated
  • warming up or easing into the activity
  • eating a protein-rich snack, such as a protein bar or nuts

Pilates classes are often taught in dedicated studios, but you may also find them offered at gyms or through online platforms.

Whenever you learn a new type of exercise, it’s a good idea to start with an experienced instructor. If you start alone without learning proper form and technique, you’re more likely to experience injury.

Consider starting with a private one-on-one session or small group class. This way, you can receive personal attention and guidance as you learn.

Once you’ve spent some time under the watchful eye of a trained Pilates teacher, you can practice at home with virtual classes or by creating your own workout using exercises you’ve learned in class. All you need is a floor mat and small hand weights.

Other Pilates exercises involve specialized equipment, such as:

  • reformers
  • tower systems
  • Cadillacs
  • barrels
  • chairs

For safety considerations, it’s important to have an instructor’s supervision as you learn how to use this equipment.

The AMF suggests people with migraine do a combination of cardio and strength exercises as part of their care plan.

If your goal is to find a type of exercise that improves strength and flexibility, Pilates might be a good option. It’s a low impact exercise that’s suitable for all ability levels. The movements are controlled and accompanied by breathing techniques, so they’re unlikely to increase blood pressure.

More research is needed to understand if Pilates improves migraine specifically, but it has many potential benefits as part of a well-rounded exercise routine.

If you have a medical condition, you should always check with your doctor before trying a new type of exercise.