Use exercise to control your bipolar depression

You’ve heard it said a thousand times, you know you should be doing it but you find every excuse in the book not to do it. I know the score, I’ve been there too. In 2015 I made a commitment to change my attitude to exercise while researching methods to treat bipolar.
The result: about a 70% reduction in depression.

I’ve spent a large part of my life in depressed states, they say that for bipolar II sufferers a person can spend as much as 40 times more time in depression than in hypomania or mania. When I started exercising regularly, however, I felt a lift within a few weeks. For the first year or so I didn’t stick to my exercise routine as much as I should have but I soon made the connection. If I stopped exercising, within a few weeks I’d slip back into depression, if I kept on exercising I felt much better and if I did feel down it was for a much shorter time and was much less severe than before.

What made a difference to me was that I decided to just accept that exercise is almost as important to me as breathing. It’s hard to do it when you’re not feeling great but knowing that the alternative is spending more time in depression helped me to come to terms with it. I use my main reason for wanting to get better as a motivator, I do it so that I’m a better person for my family.


Why should I exercise?

  1. To maximise the length between and minimise the intensity of bipolar depressions.
  2. To climb out of depressions quicker if you’re already in one.
  3. It ticks off one of your goals for the day and gives you a sense of achievement, a known depression reducer.
  4. To feel better all round. You’ll feel more relaxed, energised and confident and be more able to deal with life’s curveballs.
  5. Reduce anxiety and stress.
  6. Makes it easier to get into the state of mind to take better care of yourself and to keep yourself well by using the other methods we describe like mindfulness, cognitive behaviour therapy and getting into routines.
  7. To keep your body as healthy as you can. The healthier you are the better you’ll fight off things like high blood pressure, diabetes and general diseases and viruses.
  8. If you’re getting outside then you have a chance to get fresh air and vitamin D from the sun so that’s a bonus too.

An important note: I found that intense exercise sent me into a hypomanic state often. Initially I didn’t know what to do about it but once I learned mindfulness I was able to control the hypomania to a large degree. Please be aware of this though, specially if you are prone to full mania. If you are affected by this then start learning mindfulness as soon as possible to counteract it.


What type and how much exercise should I do?

Research seems to show that both aerobic (longer, more sustained exercise like swimming, cycling, jogging etc) and anaerobic (more intensive exercise like weight lifting, sprinting etc) are beneficial for bipolar depression. So it comes down to personal choice as to what feels better for you and what you enjoy more.

I’ve learned by trial and error that I feel better after swimming or cycling. I love getting into the open air on a bicycle and can cycle many different routes for variety too. I also have an indoor routine in case it’s too cold or wet outside and this includes push-ups, sit-ups, leg raisers, squats and very light weight training. Try out a few different things, enjoyment is quite important so that it feels less like hard work.

Some ideas of exercises are: walking, running, swimming, cycling, rowing, cardio/aerobics classes, boxing, team sports (like football, hockey, basketball/netball, track & field sports, water polo, volleyball, badminton, rugby), dancing, weight training, yoga, stair climbing and hiking. Of course there are unlimited options so find out what you have in your local area that will suit you.

In terms of how much you should do: at least 3 days of exercise a week and each session should last at least 30 minutes. For depression, sessions of up to 45 minutes are perfect but after that it seems that the benefit isn’t as high. My rule is, if I haven’t broken out into a sweat, it doesn’t count!

However, when you start out even 5 or 10 minutes a few times a week is good so that you build a strong habit. Gradually you can increase the length and intensity as you gain confidence and strength.


How do I get started with exercise?

1. Think about your main reason for wanting to get better and use this as your motivator, it will be hard to work up the energy sometimes but it DOES get easier. If it helps then print out your reason/s and put it on your wall as a reminder.

2. Think about what exercises you could do. You can start in your living room or yard with just a few general exercises (YouTube is great for ideas) or if you have other equipment already then you don’t have to spend any money gearing yourself up. Try exercising outside if possible, it has multiple benefits.

3. Start slow and build up. Depending on what state you’re in physically and how long it’s been since you last worked up a sweat, you may want to start with just 5 or 10 minutes a day for the first week or two and build up from there. If you go too hard or fast in the beginning you may put yourself off.

4. Building a new activity is hard so try to do it at the same time every day/week. I do Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings with weekend sessions as a bonus if I manage to.

5. Try to get it done in the morning if possible. I find that as the day goes on, things tend to get in the way or I lose motivation. I also feel great for the whole day if I start on the right foot. Sometimes if I exercise in the evening I’m wide awake at night and find it hard to get to sleep.

6. If you work in an office and don’t have much time in the morning try lunchtime workouts if there’s an opportunity. I used to swim for 30 minutes at our local pool and be back fresh for the rest of the work afternoon.

7. It’s better to do a shorter workout than no workout at all. Rather do a 10 minute session if you feel you can’t manage a longer one some days. Often I find that once I’ve started I’ll go for longer anyway as my mood picks up and I know how good I’ll feel afterwards. It’s essential for starting any new routine that you are consistent otherwise it’s easy to let it slide.

8. Create a backup workout at home for the days that you can’t get out. You don’t need any equipment to do sit-ups, push-up, leg raises, squats, lunges, planking etc. Google “home exercises” and you’ll find loads of ideas.

9. Don’t spend a lot of money to get started. Buy 2nd hand, borrow or buy inexpensive beginner’s equipment and then upgrade if you need to down the line once you’ve decided you definitely want to get more involved or take it a step further.

10. If you’re already in a depression it can take a few weeks to start feeling better. Don’t give up, keep on going!

11. If you skip a session don’t give yourself a hard time. It’s OK to miss some and we all do. Go easy on yourself and realise that we’re all imperfect humans. But do try to get back on track as soon as possible, the longer you leave it the harder it will be to get back into it. Be firm in your commitment to continue.

12. If you haven’t exercised for a long time it may be worth checking with your doctor before doing intense exercise.

13. If you go on holiday keep on exercising, even if it’s your home/backup routine, it’s easy to forget when you’re having fun and relaxing.

Important: Don’t give yourself a hard time if you miss a session

We all have days where despite our best intentions we just don’t manage to do everything we know we should be doing. This is specially true when we’re feeling low. Maybe other things got in the way, it just seemed too daunting or you just couldn’t take that step to get yourself started.

If you miss a day or two of exercise then take a deep breath and accept that things just didn’t work out and you’ll do your best to get back on track. Be gentle with yourself. The more you give yourself a hard time, the worse you’ll feel and the more likely you’ll be to skip another session.

BUT, also try to be as strong as you can with yourself in terms of getting back into it, if you let it slide for too long then you’ll break your routine and it’ll be much harder to carry on. Try to remember your main reasons for exercising.

It took me at least a year of skipping sessions, stopping and starting, to build a solid exercise routine. Just keep on trying until you get it the best that you can. Always get back up one more time than you fall.

Next Up: Practice mindfulness