Exercise and bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that can cause low, depressive moods and high, manic moods. While most people have mild shifts in mood from time to time, for people with bipolar disorder, these shifts in mood can be extreme and unpredictable.

Bipolar disorder is typically managed with medication and therapy. However, studies have shown that for some people, adding exercise to their treatment plan can provide added benefits. Read on to learn more about the effects that exercise can have on bipolar disorder.

For most people, exercise can have a positive effect on their mood. When you exercise, your body releases endorphins, which are known as the brain’s “feel-good” chemicals. Over time, higher levels of endorphins can make you feel better. This is why exercise is often recommended for people with depression. Exercise can also help you combat stress.

Because of these benefits, it’s easy to assume that working out might help people with bipolar disorder. A review of studies in 2015 found that can be true — but not always.

For instance, one study in the review found that for some people with bipolar disorder, exercise helped ease hypomanic symptoms, which are less severe than manic symptoms. It also helped people sleep better. In addition, the study showed that certain exercises could provide a calming effect for some people. These exercises include walking, running, and swimming.

However, that same study noted that for other people with bipolar disorder, exercise could exacerbate manic symptoms. It could cause a worsening “spiraling” effect for both manic and hypomanic episodes.

Other studies have found similar results. In one study from 2013, researchers created a program that combined exercise, nutrition, and wellness training for overweight people with bipolar disorder. They noted that the program did result in improvements to health and weight. It also reduced symptoms of depression in participants, and improved their overall functioning. However, they noted that their results also indicated that exercise could worsen manic symptoms.

Bipolar disorder can affect more than just your mood. If you have this condition, you’re at a higher risk for other health concerns.

Research in 2015 showed that if you have bipolar disorder, you may have a higher risk of health conditions such as:

The research also showed that not only are these health conditions a concern for your overall health, but they may also increase your symptoms of bipolar disorder.

A possible reason for these increased health risks is the increased sedentary behavior (nonphysical activity) associated with the condition. A 2017 study of people living with mental illness found that they were more sedentary than people without mental illness. And of those with mental illness, people with bipolar disorder were the most sedentary.

Exercise — the opposite of sedentary behavior — can reduce your risk of getting or worsening these other health problems associated with bipolar disorder. It can help you manage your weight, and reduce your risk of stroke, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.

As noted above, obesity can be a problem for people with bipolar disorder. In some of these cases, the weight gain could be caused by use of certain medications for bipolar disorder. The medications may cause metabolic changes that prevent your body from burning calories as efficiently as it did before. Or the drugs could simply increase your appetite.

The following types of medications can potentially cause weight gain:

  • antidepressants
  • antipsychotics
  • antidepressant-antipsychotic combinations
  • mood stabilizers

If you find that you’re suddenly gaining weight after starting any of these medications, talk to your doctor. If you have uncontrolled weight gain, you may need to try a different medication. However, never stop taking a medication or change your dosage without talking to your doctor first.

In other cases, increasing the amount of exercise you do could help you lose the weight. Exercise burns calories and can build muscle, both of which can help you shed pounds.

Bipolar disorder is a lifelong condition, but it can be managed with proper treatment. While medication is typically the primary treatment option for bipolar disorder, exercise can help too. In many cases, it can help reduce symptoms of bipolar disorder, as well as lessen the increased risk of certain health conditions associated with bipolar disorder.

For people with bipolar disorder, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America recommends working out for 30 minutes, 3 to 5 days per week. So talk to your doctor about including exercise into your treatment plan. And be sure to do the following:

  • Check with your doctor before starting a new exercise regimen, especially if you’re new to exercise.
  • Stop any activity that causes pain or any worsening of symptoms and contact your doctor.
  • Be sure to talk to your doctor if you notice that your manic symptoms increase after starting a new exercise routine.

Work with your doctor to find the right exercise plan for you, keeping in mind that different types of exercise work for different people. Try different options until you find the plan that works best for you.