Regular exercise as part of a healthy lifestyle should be adopted by anyone striving to regain or get the upper hand on mental health difficulties. Regular exercise, such as walking, biking, running, or swimming, can be low impact—easy on the body, and therapeutic for the mind.
This page has been produced by the AYCNP with a mental health professional associated with the AYCNP, an associate professor of psychology and practicing therapist with a PsyD in psychology.
Exercise is a positive self help tool for depression and bipolar disorder, and is part of a healthy lifestyle contributing to physical, emotional, and mental wellness.
Regular low-impact exercise can contribute to significant progress towards an improvement in physical and mental health for those who have been diagnosed with, or have the symptoms of, depression or bipolar disorder. Exercise is effective self-help for relief from stress and anxiety.
Exercise at least 30 minutes a day, three to five times a week.
Exercise for at least 30 minutes to one hour per day, preferably four or more times per week for effective self-help. Exercise doesn’t necessarily mean having to join a gym, something as simple as walking briskly for 30 minutes a day can be all you need to get a daily boost of healthy neurotransmitters and pull out of depression or burn off stress.
Stress is one of the key triggers for symptoms of bipolar disorder. Get a handle on stress through exercise and other positive self-help measures. Lowering stress is preventive in bipolar disorder relapse, as well as major depressive disorder, and has physical and psychological benefits towards a healthy mind.
When you briskly walk outdoors, the positive feeling of going forward provides a daily sense of accomplishment; moving swiftly in one direction contributes to a feeling of self-actualization, you feel as if you are gaining control over your own life. Feel-good neurotransmitters are released in the brain in response to the physical activity providing a sense of well-being. It is as if you are walking towards better health, better mental health, a better future.
Try to find green areas to walk. Walking on a treadmill does provide physical and psychological benefits. But walking briskly in the outdoors is even an even more-effective way of getting the full benefits from this simple daily exercise, capturing the Zen of nature in addition to stimulating the body and mind.
Even if, at the present time, you may feel that you are accomplishing little in your life, walking briskly everyday provides a sense of accomplishment; moving swiftly in the right direction when you walk provides you with a sense of well being, as if you are walking towards better health and towards to the goal of improved mental health.
Exercise pumps blood through your veins and reduces calories. It can make a positive difference towards greater self-esteem. It provides a sense of well-being, part of which is psychological, and part of which is physical, as neurotransmitters known as endorphins are released in the brain, in response to vigorous activity. Endorphins are chemically related to opiates, naturally occurring in the human body and brain, and are what is responsible, in part, for the "runner's high".
The sense of well-being, the relief of stress, brings a calming sensation, and the occurrence of a naturally-activated elevated mood, when exercising on a regular basis, can help in balancing out mood swings. Exercise expends energy that alleviates mania, and releases endorphins help temper the negative feelings associated with depression.
Benefits of exercise for mental health, depression, bipolar disorder
balances out mood swings
contributes greater self esteem
inspires feelings of hope
results in physical benefits such as weight loss, strong heart, better circulation
According to researchers at Duke University, walking has proven to be better than antidepressants for mild to moderate depression. This proves to be true both in the short-term and long-term.
The relapse rate of depression for those who walk regularly for exercise is significantly lower than those who don’t exercise and is also significantly lower for those who rely soley on antidepressants for depression treatment. Surprisingly, the Duke study also indicates that there is a lower relapse rate for those who exercise (brisk walking) for depression relief than for those who utilize exercise and antidepressants. This may be because the mind gets used to antidepressants, and tends to rebound towards depression when coming off the drugs.
In choosing to exercise, focus on making the experience pleasant. For example, if you feel self-conscious exercising in the gym or outdoors, begin by exercising at home. You can do a great workout at home in the privacy of your own living room. Develop an exercise routine that you can maintain; even without exercise equipment, or with the simplest of equipment such as a few free weights, you can have an ultimate workout.
Try exercising with a friend or family member if you need support to maintain your exercise schedule.
Remember to consult with a doctor before beginning a vigorous exercise regimen. Do not choose a method of exercise that puts your health at risk and try to start slowly and work up to a more vigorous pace, rather than to climb Mt. Everest the first day you work out, as we often do. Maybe you feel great, but it is easy to overdo it, which can be risky to your body; this is especially to as you approach 50 years of age, or if you are obese (obesity is 20% above normal body weight for your frame, gender, and age). Similarly, consult with your doctor before starting an exercise regimen if you are taking medications. Drink plenty of water while exercising and after.
Start slowly with short, low-impact exercise periods.
Gradually increase the intensity and time frame.
Pace yourself during your workout to conserve energy.
Persevere over the long-term and fight discouragement.
Note that exercising might be hard at first, but becomes easier as you continue your program—a way of life.
Do not ignore your physical limitations, or exercise to the point of pain. "No pain, no gain" is a not necessarily true, exercise can be enjoyable and painless.
Try to work toward a goal of at least 30 minutes of exercise, three to five times per week.
Include periods of physical activity into your daily routine.
Take the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator.
Get off the bus or park your car before your stop, and walk the extra distance each day.
Exercise is a healthy choice, for your body, your mind, and your psyche. If one is diagnosed with a mood disorder, needs to burn off stress, or relieve anxiety, exercise is an essential part of self-help treatment.
What most people who do not exercise might not realize, however, is that exercise can be fun, habit-forming and can make you feel great. In terms of bipolar disorder, specifically, balanced inclusion of exercise in your daily routine is an important avenue towards improving and balancing mood.
References for Exercise and Mental Health / Depression:
1. Depression (Major Depression) - Depression and anxiety: Exercise eases symptoms. (2011, October 1). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.com/health/depression-and-exercise/MH00043
2. Exercise and Depression. (2009, August 3). Harvard Mental Health Letter
3. Study: Exercise Has Long-Lasting Effects on Depression. (2000, September 22). Duke Today, (Duke University)
4. How Can Exercise Or Lifestyle Help Bipolar Disorder? (2008, April 29). Interview with Gary Sachs, M.D., Director, Bipolar Clinic and Research Program, Massachusetts General Hospital. ABC News
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Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder provides positive ideas for self-help in dealing with bipolar disorder. It was written by someone who was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder 2, along with a doctor of neurology.
Healing Depression & Bipolar Disorder Without Drugs: Inspiring Stories of Restoring Mental Health Through Natural Therapies
, by Gracelyn Guyol
. A former public relations executive, Guyol was determined to be free of psychiatric medication that caused dangerous side effects. This became a catalyst for this guide, which documents natural remedies for depression and bipolar disorder. The book features true success stories in treating bipolar disorder through non-mainstream approaches.
Overcoming Bipolar Disorder: A Comprehensive Workbook for Managing Your Symptoms and Achieving Your Life Goals
. by Mark Bauer, Evette Ludman, Devra E. Greenwald, Amy M. Kilbourne
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Amazon linked (off-site)