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Exercise & Epilepsy: Is It Safe?

January 18, 2024

By Amber Kaiser

Exercise and diet are hot topics for a lot of people at the beginning of every new year. I’ve exercised throughout my life—sprinting in school and later running long distances were my favorite forms of exercise until my mid-twenties. After multiple vertebrae fractures during my second EMU visit (Epilepsy Monitoring Unit) due to a handful of back-to-back generalized seizures, I stopped running and later started walking regularly as my main form of exercise. If you make an effort to fast walk intermittently during your walk or even carry light weights, that can really help with getting your heart rate up. Because I never had generalized seizures randomly during the day (although I now know having nocturnal seizures isn’t really any safer especially because of SUDEP), I’ve been able to exercise whenever I want especially after my brain surgery. However, before my surgery, when I had complex partial seizures at any time, I do remember experiencing a complex partial seizure while I was working out to an aerobics video at home once. If I remember correctly, I think it affected me enough to stop working out that day. Which brings me to the concept of epilepsy and physical exercise in general—is it safe? Everyone experiences epilepsy both differently and the same in certain ways—how can one person with epilepsy get exercise when someone else with epilepsy needs help or has to take serious precautions? And how does exercise affect the brain?

Is it safe to exercise if you have epilepsy?

In general, if you are able, it is safe for most people with epilepsy to exercise moderately. Depending on the type of seizure you have can also depend on what you do—high contact sports with dangerous ways of getting injured including TBI (traumatic brain injury) like football and hockey are often not recommended. Also, if you have been seizure free for a certain amount of time, you may feel safer to exercise. Activities like walking, low impact aerobics and yoga may be safer and your doctor may also have some tips about the benefits of exercise for epilepsy. In my online search, I read that “occasionally seizures can be triggered by physical exercise, but this is rare.” Also, exercise can actually often help people feel better because it helps your brain create more neurotransmitters called endorphins. I think most of us can relate if you’ve noticed how much better you feel after working out. Personally, every time I go for a walk (especially after it’s been a while), I’m always reminded of why I wish I exercised more! It helps you feel better and over time, can help you get in shape or maintain your current physical health as well. All in all, for people who have epilepsy and are able to exercise, I’m finding (and speaking from my own experience) that working out with epilepsy is safe for most people.

How can caregivers help their loved one exercise?

If you have a caregiver and don’t already exercise, consider having a conversation with your caregiver about the idea of exercising. What kind of exercise do you want to do? What part of the day would you like to exercise? Would your caregiver be interested in trying to exercise with you? These are just a few questions that may be beneficial to think about when considering starting to exercise. What if you and your caregiver took a 15-minute walk together to start, or even consider doing something they enjoy or resting while you exercise?

How does exercise affect the brain?

You may remember since you first started learning about exercise in school, that walking, running, swimming, school sports or any other common exercises are so healthy for the brain and body. Have you also noticed how you always feel better after exercise even if you are tired from working out? According to a basic Google search about what happens to the brain during exercise it states: “As blood flow increases, your brain is exposed to more oxygen and nutrients. Exercise also induces the release of beneficial proteins in the brain. These nourishing proteins keep brain cells (also known as neurons) healthy, and promote the growth of new neurons. Neurons are the working building blocks of the brain.” We know how in people with epilepsy when a seizure happens, the neurons are firing and destroying pathways, and with exercise, the brain actually grows new neurons and connections. Anything healthy to create new neuron growth in the brain, can help people with epilepsy.

A study in the National Library of Medicine, Exercise Benefits Brain Function, also says, “Regular physical exercise has been proved to have therapeutic benefits, such as treating psychiatric illnesses, supporting brain injury recovery, and resisting neurodegenerative diseases.”

Easy exercise and epilepsy resources

The Epilepsy Foundation has a handful of helpful resources for getting started safely exercising. Check out these common questions and exercise tips for children, adults and caregivers. They also have tips on what to do if you have a seizure while exercising.

Here are some exercises suggested by a neurologist who helps people with epilepsy and describes a variety of options like walking, basketball, volleyball, tennis, strengthening exercises and yoga for epilepsy. I also found an article about yoga exercises for epilepsy describing certain yoga poses and deep breathing exercises for epilepsy. Also, consider asking your neurologist or epileptologist about what exercises would be safe for you to try!

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