One important self-care tool for living well with bipolar disorder is regular exercise. One of the challenges I have found over the years, but especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, is the expense, inconvenience and limited access to facilities for working out. Our family has moved a lot (six times in eight years) and each time a new set of challenges presented themselves.
Some places were a long distance from a work-out facility or pool, some places the fees were prohibitive, and it always involved extra time to get to the facility, and figuring out child care while I was working out.
All of this was compounded by the challenges I was having when I was in a depression. I was already struggling with limited emotional resources for motivating myself to do something, and all of these obstacles made it harder to stay consistent and easier to give up.
The two forms of exercise that I have come back to over and over the past two decades as a mother that were most effective, convenient, and physically and mentally beneficial were walking and running outside. Really, I could simply say that all you need is a good, supportive pair of shoes and you can walk or run anywhere, with children in tow. But I will tell you more about why these really are the most ideal forms of exercise for mothers with bipolar disorder.
First, running and walking are very convenient forms of exercise.
There are a lot of different forms of exercise, many of which require memberships, equipment, facilities, babysitters, etc. Walking and running are simple and accessible, and the only investment is a good pair of shoes. I have taken my babies and toddlers on walks and jogs with me in the stroller.
When my children were a little older I would take them to the track where they played in the grass while I ran laps around them. Sometimes they would even run with me. Now, I get up in the early hours before my husband leaves so that I can make sure I get my run in before the day starts. It is so convenient because all it involves is getting dressed and stepping outside to go run. I don’t have to drive anywhere or make arrangements for my children.
It is also possible to run or walk wherever you are, so you can maintain your exercise routine even if you are out of town. They really are the most convenient forms of exercise I have ever done (with the possible exception of yoga, which I talk about in Bipolar Disorder: Yoga for Your Mind and Body).
Second, they are both very efficient forms of exercise for your entire body.
Both walking and running are great cardiovascular workouts that help strengthen your heart and produce endorphins that help reduce stress and elevate your mood in a short amount of time. When you have children there are a lot of demands on your time. Finding an efficient way to exercise is important so that you can do it consistently.
In the past when I have tried to do other types of exercise–swimming, group classes, etc.–I have always had something come up that would get in the way eventually, especially during the pandemic when everything was shut down. I wasn’t just doing the exercise, I was having to spend extra time going to the facility for the class or to swim. I spent at least two to three times as much time as I do when I run or walk.
Third, there are physical and psychological benefits to running or walking outside.
When you run or walk outside you get the benefits of sunshine, fresh air, change in scenery and even social contact. An article by Advanced Neurotherapy identifies four key benefits to exercising outside: 1) increased oxygen levels from being in fresh air helps improve brain function; 2) spending time outdoors in natural scenery has been proven to improve concentration; 3) increased vitamin D from sunshine improves healthy brain function; and 4) exercising outside helps to reduce stress.
Being in the fresh air is good for your body and your mind! Living in the Midwest I even learned I could run in really cold weather, just layer up!
There are additional benefits to your brain if you don’t wear headphones when you run that are similar to mindfulness meditation. Years ago when I started walking and running outside I didn’t wear headphones for safety reasons since I usually walked or ran alone.
As I have walked and run without earbuds outside over the years I have really been amazed at how incredible the benefits are to my mind. Mindfulness meditation (see my post on Mindfulness) is about learning how to be present in your mind and in the moment you are in at the time. When I am walking and running I love to be aware of how my body is feeling, what my brain is thinking, and I frequently have inspiration come to mind about challenges that I am dealing with at that time.
The change of scenery has interesting psychological benefits. First, when you are running outside you can see how far you have come and there is a feeling of accomplishment. You feel like you are getting somewhere. There are changes in elevation or terrain that keep your brain active and engaged.
There are also the benefits of seeing different scenery to your mind. Whether you are in the city, suburbs or country, there is always something to interest your brain. When we lived in a small town I had a favorite run that would take me past a field where cows grazed. When I ran in the city I found the buildings and people interesting to look at, which brings up another benefit to running outside–people.
I love the semi-social nature of running outside. When you pass someone else you can wave or smile at them which gives you a sense of community and the act of smiling can help you feel better emotionally. I have had times, too, when I have been part of a running club or walked with friends, and that social connection has improved my emotional wellbeing.
As moms we have built-in sources of stress and demands on our time and energy that test us on a daily basis. When you combine this with a mood disorder like bipolar disorder it can feel like a losing battle. But when you have a simple, convenient, efficient form of exercise as part of your self-care routine that can help your physical and emotional health, you can develop a habit that will be another step on your path to living well and healthy with bipolar disorder.