Exercising with Epilepsy

We have all heard that exercise is good for us and should be a part of our daily routine. But if you have epilepsy, can you exercise safely? Exercise is rarely a trigger for seizures. Most of the time, the benefits of exercise outweigh the risks. You should discuss exercise limitations (or lack thereof) with your doctor. Here are some questions to ask yourself before joining in exercise, sports, and recreation.

Is exercise safe with epilepsy?

Studies have shown that people with epilepsy exercise less than others. There are a few reasons behind this. Many people with epilepsy are concerned about having seizures in public and while exercising. Also, doctors used to advise against exercise, which is a viewpoint that has changed over the years.1

Many sports and activities are now considered low-risk for those with epilepsy. The International League Against Epilepsy (ILAE) created guidelines for safety in sports for those with epilepsy. Sports are divided into 3 groups based on risk of injury or death if a seizure was to occur:2

  • Group 1, no significant extra risk
  • Group 2, moderate risk
  • Group 3, major risk

Examples of sports identified by the ILAE as those that pose no significant extra risk include:2

  • Baseball
  • Basketball
  • Walking, hiking, or running
  • Volleyball
  • Tennis
  • Bowling
  • Judo and wrestling
  • Cross-country skiing
  • Dancing
  • Golf

Other sports may pose no additional risk. Talk to your doctor about the activity and the risks.

What about water sports?

Water sports are risky for those with epilepsy, but some people may be able to safely perform these with some modifications. Water sports that fall into this category include:3

  • Swimming
  • Jet-skiing
  • Windsurfing
  • Sailing

Some people are able to enjoy water sports with accommodations, such as:3

  • Never swim or enjoy a water sport alone.
  • Make sure someone with you knows you have epilepsy. At least 1 person should know seizure first aid and CPR.
  • Always wear a life vest near the water. Make sure it is the right fit and a good quality. For example, some life vests will keep you upright in the water even if you are unconscious.
  • Wear a MedicAlert bracelet or necklace.

Can I play contact sports?

People with epilepsy do not have a higher risk of injury with contact sports than those without epilepsy. Contact sports such as rugby, football, and hockey are generally safe for those with seizures.3

Concussions can happen in any sport but are more likely to occur with contact sports. Concussions are not good for anyone. Make sure you talk to your doctor about the risks and wear all the protective gear needed for the sport.3,4

General tips for exercising with epilepsy

There are some general tips that people with epilepsy practice to keep themselves safe during exercise. These include:3

  • Bring a friend. There is safety in numbers. Not only will you be safer, having a friend along is usually more fun.
  • If you are riding your bike, try to stay off the busy roads. Always wear a helmet.
  • Walking may be a good choice. It is as simple as lacing up your shoes and stepping out your front door! As with biking, avoid busy roads when possible.
  • Avoid using a treadmill if you are alone. If you fall from a treadmill, it can lead to major injuries.
  • Listen to your body and take breaks. Dehydration can be an epilepsy trigger in some people. Remember to drink plenty of water!

Sports and activities to avoid

Those who have uncontrolled seizures should avoid certain sports. If you lose consciousness during these activities, they pose a life-threatening risk. These may include:3

  • Scuba diving
  • Rock climbing
  • Skydiving
  • Hang gliding
  • Mountain climbing

Finding balance to live a social, happy life is key. Exercise and recreation are important aspects of a healthy lifestyle while living with epilepsy. Being prepared, thinking ahead, and making a few changes as needed will allow you to live the active life you desire.

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Written by: Katie Murphy | Last reviewed: November 2021