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How Can Exercise Help With Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder?

Whether you’re walking out of yoga class or you’ve just finished a long run, that feeling you get after a good workout is unbeatable. Your body feels energized and your mind feels more focused.

It’s been known for a long time that exercise leads to higher levels of happiness, but it may do much more than that — it might help prevent or reduce symptoms of bipolar disorder.

Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that causes unusual shifts in mood and energy levels. You might feel very “up,” energized, and elated at periods of time (manic episodes) and very “down,” depressed, and hopeless at other times (depressive episodes).

These mood episodes can affect your energy levels, emotions, and sleep patterns — and it can be very challenging to live with. Bipolar disorder can affect your relationships, career, and ability to complete daily tasks.

    Fast Facts About Bipolar Disorder

  1. About 4.4% of US adults will experience bipolar disorder at some time in their life.
  2. Over 80% of US adults with bipolar disorder have serious impairments in areas of their day-to-day life, such as work, school, or relationships.
  3. Without proper treatment, people with bipolar disorder may develop severe mania or depression.
  4. People with bipolar disorder are at a higher risk for thyroid disease, migraine headaches, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.
  5. Bipolar disorder is a lifelong illness, but continuous treatment can help control symptoms.

There are several types of treatment for bipolar disorder, such as medication or psychotherapy. These can be very effective, but if they’re not working — or you prefer another option — exercise can be a great way to try controlling your symptoms.

Just as exercise can improve anyone’s wellbeing, it can improve and manage symptoms of bipolar disorder. Here’s how:

Exercise May Limit or Prevent Mood Swings

Some people believe that “runner’s high” is a myth or nearly impossible to attain. But it’s a very real feeling that is a result of your body producing natural feel-good chemicals.

These chemicals can improve the symptoms of bipolar disorder. In fact, in a study of patients with bipolar disorder, patients who participated in a walking group that met 5 times a day for 40 minutes each reported lower depression and anxiety symptoms than those who didn’t exercise.

Exercise can improve symptoms of bipolar disorder by:

  • Releasing endorphins, which are chemicals that improve your mood and feelings of wellbeing
  • Releasing other chemicals that are associated with good mood — that are typically low in people with depression — such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine
  • Supporting nerve cell growth in your hippocampus, which is a region of the brain that helps regulate your mood: A larger hippocampus has been shown to lead to fewer symptoms of depression — something that many people with bipolar disorder struggle with during mood episodes
  • Reducing levels of cortisol — a hormone that is known to be higher in people with depression
  • Serving as an outlet for energy during a manic episode. Many patients have said they’ve found exercise with a rhythm, such as swimming, running, or walking, to be calming and help with mood regulation

Unfortunately, people with severe mental health conditions also tend to live more sedentary lifestyles — which is the opposite of exercise. More than ½ of people with severe mental health conditions are not meeting the physical activity recommendations for their age (150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity, like brisk walking or swimming, or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, like running). By adding activity into your routine, you may be able to combat some of the symptoms of mental health conditions like bipolar disorder.

Benefits of Exercise That Go Beyond Your Mood

Though mood swings are a significant and potentially debilitating part of bipolar disorder, there are other risks, too. Compared to those without this disorder, people with bipolar disorder are at a higher risk for certain health conditions or problems, including:

  • A large waistline
  • A high triglyceride (a type of fat in the blood) level
  • A low HDL cholesterol (“good cholesterol”) level
  • High blood pressure
  • High blood sugar
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes

Exercise can help you manage all of these problems. Staying active helps you control your weight, keep your heart healthy, and manage your blood sugar and insulin levels. For example, it can help you control your blood sugar if you have diabetes or lose weight if you are obese.

Simple Ways to Incorporate Exercise into Your Life

You don’t have to run a marathon or become an Olympic athlete to benefit from exercise. Exercise can be as simple as going for a walk, joining an exercise class, or going for a bike ride.

Other easy ways to stay active include:

  • Changing up your everyday activities, such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator or parking a little farther away from the entrance to the grocery store
  • Taking your dog for a walk, instead of just letting them out in the yard
  • Reading a book while on a stationary bike, rather than on the couch
  • Going for a power-walk around the mall or climbing up and down staircases if you can’t get to a gym

If you don’t enjoy going to the gym or taking exercise classes, try activities that involve being active. For example, join a hiking club, recreational volleyball team, or dance class.

Even little changes to your lifestyle can activate those feel-good chemicals, benefit your health, and ease symptoms of bipolar disorder.

A Holistic Approach for a Complex Disorder

Bipolar disorder is a complex and lifelong condition. It impacts your mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing, and no single treatment will manage all of your symptoms.

Many kinds of treatments can ease symptoms — medications, therapy, and living a healthy lifestyle. Exercise alone won’t manage all of your symptoms, but it can make them easier to manage and reduce your risk of other health complications.

As with any major lifestyle changes, talk to your provider before starting an exercise program. And always listen to your body. If something hurts or makes your symptoms more severe, stop those activities and talk to your provider.

Different types of exercise work for different people. Keep trying new ways to stay active, have fun, and find what works for you.

Have questions about how exercise can ease symptoms of bipolar disorder? Call (785) 270-4440 to set up an appointment with a Stormont Vail primary care provider to learn more about implementing an effective exercise program in your life.

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