Bipolar Disorder: The Benefits of Exercise

One of the things that I have learned in my journey to wellness is just how much our physical, mental and emotional health are interrelated. When one is suffering or unwell it impacts all of the other areas. Likewise, improving your health in one area can positively impact the other areas, too. 

I found this especially true with my physical health. When my body was not well, either out of shape or sick, it had a noticeable negative impact on my mental and emotional well being. For this reason I have learned how important it is to take care of myself physically and why exercise is so important to maintaining mental and emotional health.

My Early Experiences with Exercise and my Bipolar Disorder

In high school and college I was a competitive swimmer. After my diagnosis in 1998 I frequently would talk with my doctors about how I noticed that when I was a competitive swimmer, during those teenage and young adult years, my symptoms seemed to be much more mild and manageable. One doctor suggested that the training and competition might have kept me in a perpetual hypomanic state, which helped to stave off major depressive episodes. This made sense as I looked back on that time and the patterns in my life. 

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I tried to find ways to recreate that over the years. I felt like this was an important element to being well, but as I got into a career and then married and began having children I was unable to train enough to recreate that same physical intensity that proved so beneficial during my younger years. I also struggled to make myself exercise at all when I was depressed. As my illness got worse, exercise started to become counterproductive, draining finite emotional and mental resources and compounding my depression.

Once I finally found the supplements that helped balance the chemicals in my brain (see Bipolar Disorder: When Medication Doesn’t Work) I started the process of learning the place of exercise on my path to healing. The right kind of exercise in the right way really is key to maintaining optimal mental and emotional health.

The Downside to Training for Triathlons

When I first started to exercise after I got on my supplements I went back to what I knew, training for competition. I decided to sign up and train for my first triathlon. I knew how to train, I had developed a lot of physical and mental self-discipline related to training when I was a competitive swimmer. 

So I bought books and watched videos on training for triathlons and went to work. I loved the familiar feeling of physical exertion that gave me an endorphin boost, and a sense of accomplishment. And when I participated in my first triathlon I was reminded of how much I loved to compete. It was thrilling!

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Unfortunately, when it was over I got depressed, and I didn’t understand why. I tried to make myself exercise, but the effort was mentally exhausting and drained me. Instead of filling my emotional reservoir, it was draining it. I concluded that I didn’t like exercising for the sake of exercising, and that I needed to have a competitive goal to work towards in order for it to be beneficial to my mental state. 

The problem this created was that I got into a pattern of training for events, which caused me to become hyper focused on the training, often at the expense of my family. It also created a hypomanic state while I was training, and this resulted in a crash and a depressive episode when the event was over. I didn’t know what to do. I could see that exercise had a positive impact on my mental health, but I couldn’t figure out how to access those benefits without hurting some other aspect of my mental or emotional health. 

Exercising in a Mindful Way

The first breakthrough occurred after I had started to practice meditation (see my post Bipolar Disorder: Why Mindfulness Meditation is Necessary). I was feeling really stressed one day and I was having a difficult time getting myself to go on my training run. I decided to run without my GPS tracking app and to just take it easy. It was such an enjoyable experience for me. 

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I experienced a lot of the same benefits I received from meditating and felt positive and rejuvenated when I was done. I started to see that taking a walk or run, without trying to push myself to achieve a certain time or goal, helped my mental state. I started to do that more frequently, just walking or running for the sake of the experience, and I really started to love it. 

I don’t wear headphones or earbuds, (see Bipolar Disorder: Walking and Running). Not listening to anything while I exercise keeps my brain from being distracted and allows me to focus on what is happening in the moment, and reap the meditative benefits of the exercise and the outdoors.

Exercise for Health Rather Than Weight Loss

The next thing that helped me to really benefit emotionally from exercise was to focus on being healthy, rather than losing weight or getting slimmer. When I focused on something I didn’t like about myself–like my body or my weight–as a reason for exercising it created a negative experience with the entire process and made me feel more stressed. 

I found myself so focused on my weight and appearance that if I wasn’t losing weight or seeing any noticeable difference in my body I would get discouraged and depressed. It also created a lot of stress leading up to the exercise because my mind was negatively focused and it created anxiety for me rather than relieving it. When dealing with Bipolar Disorder you already have so much negative self talk in your mind, you don’t need to feed it by creating additional reasons to dislike yourself.

I decided that the reason I was exercising was because it helps me to feel better physically and mentally. As I focused on positive motivations it helped me to get excited about my exercise so that I looked forward to it, rather than dreading it

Exercise for Stress Relief

I have also found that exercise is extremely beneficial to relieving stress and anxiety for me. When I am focused on my exercise and breathing, and I am out in nature (I also discuss why this is beneficial in my post on Walking and Running) my mind is able to subconsciously sort through problems I am having and often come up with solutions I hadn’t considered. 

This gives my mind relief from the stressors and worries that sometimes overwhelm me and gives my body a physical outlet for the physical symptoms of stress. I am always amazed at the insight and inspiration that comes to me when I am exercising outside without headphones. And I physically feel so good the rest of the day.

Exercise for Self-discipline and Self-confidence

Finally, I have found that when I am exercising consistently I am more productive in my life overall. It takes consistent self-discipline to begin and maintain an exercise routine. I have learned to keep my exercise routine simple, easy (accessible) and a small time commitment (usually 30-40 minutes) so that it doesn’t require more than I can consistently give. 

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When I do this it is much easier for me to follow through on my commitment to myself. Then, as I keep that commitment to myself I gain confidence in my ability to follow through and stay consistent. I am then able to apply that self-discipline to other areas of my life. The other thing that I find is that the benefits I derive from regular exercise give me more energy, focus and confidence to meet my other commitments and priorities in my life.

My mindset about exercise really has changed. I am now focused on the mental, emotional and physical benefits it gives me. I have removed the stressors associated with it (training stress and body image stress) and I have found that exercise really is key to maintaining a healthy body and mind. Our bodies and minds are truly inseparable, and when you take care of your body (in a healthy and balanced way), it really does help you care for your mind.

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