Long before I was diagnosed with postpartum bipolar disorder, I led an active life. After college I became an American Council on Exercise certified personal trainer. I worked in a family-owned gym where I designed members' fitness programs and encouraged them to exercise consistently. During the three years I worked there I noticed that members who exercised regularly seemed to be the happiest and healthiest of all. I also knew from firsthand experience that working out boosted my mood.
When I began studying exercise in the 1990s everything I read supported the premise that exercise could alleviate depression. While I thought that was great, I had NO idea that bipolar depression would almost destroy me, and that one day exercise would help keep my bipolar depression at bay.
Fast forward to 2013.
By then I had been hospitalized for bipolar depression a whopping seven times! After I was released from the hospital, exercise was the last thing I wanted to do; crawling into bed had the most appeal. Despite that fact, my psychiatrist encouraged me to work out twenty to thirty minutes every day unless I was very sick.
When he advised me to exercise daily at a mild-moderate intensity doing a low-impact activity such as walking, swimming, or hiking, I was daunted. I wanted to comply with his recommendation because he had already been profoundly helpful. He oversaw many of my medication trials and none of them worked, but he remained patient and optimistic. When he finally suggested that I try an old-school medication combination, my treatment-resistant bipolar depression lifted.
I trusted him.
I had a dusty elliptical training machine in my husband's office -- at least I didn't hang laundry to dry on it! I hoisted myself on the machine, wanting my experience to be over before it even began. If you were to have watched me exercise, you would never have believed I trained clients and led circuit-training classes. With a bottle of water beside me, I began a ten-minute-long routine. When I finished, I felt a sense of accomplishment and well being that lingered the rest of the afternoon and evening.
Since that fateful day I've kept up my daily workouts for the most part. Sometimes I have to juggle the workout time from late afternoon to early evening, but I fit it in. You might prefer mornings to exercise -- do what works for you.
I consider my daily workouts to be one of my "meds" for my bipolar disorder.
I'm very fortunate in that I have a family that supports me in this endeavor. (By "support" I mean that my husband watches our young children and makes them dinner while I work out if he's able to do it.) It helps that my husband and two daughters know it's "doctor's orders" and that exercise is essential for my mood stability.
Life has not been easy since I decided to exercise daily. I've had a couple setbacks in which my depression began to descend due to life events, but it dissipated more quickly than it ever did before. I believe that apart from my medication, exercising has played a significant role in stabilizing my mood and helping me recover from depressive episodes faster.
Dr. Larry Leith, author of Exercising Your Way to Better Mental Health, writes that walking and jogging/running are exercises that have been most consistently associated with reduced depression, but cycling, aerobics, swimming and weight lifting have shown to be effective. Dr. Leith states:
"Research hasn't shown one perfect exercise for depression, but the exercises mentioned here involve large muscle groups and are rhythmic in nature. Any exercise with these elements will most likely help reduce depression."
During my personal training days I became a freelance writer. I had the exciting opportunity to interview Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, author of the bestselling memoir An Unquiet Mind, for a fitness article I was working on. I asked her "What is your general opinion on aerobic exercise in relation to those diagnosed with depression?" Dr. Jamison told me:
"I think it is an important adjunct in mild to moderate depression. People with more severe depression are usually unable to exercise."
Obviously Dr. Jamison is right -- if you're laid up with debilitating depression, no one should be pressuring you to break a sweat. All in good time. You'll get there.
Please make sure you have your doctor's blessing before you incorporate a fitness routine into your life. I recommend that you start out with something small, i.e., five or ten minutes tops. You can add to your overall time later. Try taking a very short walk. Consider renting or purchasing a low-impact (i.e., you're not stomping around, stressing your knee and ankle joints) cardiovascular workout DVD or video for beginners with reputable reviews -- you want to be safe! The key is to get your blood moving.
As you begin feeling better, gradually lengthen the amount of time you're able to exercise to twenty minutes total and see how you feel. A couple months later you can increase your time to thirty minutes total and re-assess how you feel. Is it too much? Are you overwhelmed? It's far better to stay at twenty minutes if you'll stick with it for the long haul. If you can join a friend to work out or attend a class, you'll have a built-in accountability factor and social stimulation as well.
Some days it's much harder to start working out than it is on other days. But within the first two to five minutes I feel markedly better. I'm always amazed by the shift in my mood and energy. I encourage you to start slow-but-steady, and I guarantee that if you make the effort to fit exercise into your day, you will reap the rewards: better health, sleep, and best of all, possibly less depression and more mood stabilization!
I wish you the best of luck in incorporating fitness into your life, and thanks for reading!
If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of bipolar disorder, please contact your doctor.