I don’t want to tell another hackneyed story about how mental illness makes my life so dysfunctional. I think that point is important, but only as long as it educates and helps people understand how to help one deal with the dysfunctional aspects of mental illness. I want to talk about how exercise has enabled me to live successfully with bipolar disorder. I will explain the thinking that I have done so that I can come up with the exercise routines that I do, and I will also explain how one should go about using exercise to get a more fulfilling life.
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2014. It was very relieving to finally get a proper diagnosis and get into treatment. However, as time went on, I started becoming aware of the fact that the medications I was prescribed only worked to a certain extent. The psychiatrist was experimenting with different drugs while I experienced debilitating episodes of depression, or uncontrolled mania. This was frustrating for sometimes I’d spend a week(s) in bed, even though I was on medication. It is during one of these times that I started reading on mental illness, and I have since been reading every mental illness literature that I can find. And I don’t read just for the sake of knowledge; I decided that I would always read so that I could use the knowledge that I learned to help me live life fully despite bipolar disorder. Since then, my life has been a constant experiment.
If you happen to read scientific literature on mental illness, it soon becomes clear that there is not very clear knowledge on mental illness (unlike for other illnesses like cancer and cholera, which have a clear cause). For example, when I read on bipolar disorder, I learned that the most effective medication, lithium, came about as an accident, and that scientists and doctors don’t fully understand why it’s effective. Plus, there is no real agreement on what causes mental illness, or what ways to treat it successfully. Same case for depression, anxiety and schizophrenia. This was not very reassuring, so I kept on reading and attending conferences on mental illness.
One of the most transformative studies that I have read was one published by a Harvard group of scientists who had studied the effects of exercise on recovery from mental illness. The study showed that people who exercised (and sometimes took medication) recovered from mood disorders (depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder specifically) faster and stayed in remission for a longer time than those people who just took medication alone without doing any physical exercise. The study showed that exercise is a very effective cure for mood disorders. I also happened to read the study during a time when I was seeing a psychiatrist. I asked the psychiatrist what they thought of the study, and they told me this: “If I could get my patients to exercise once a day or every two days, I’d be happier with that and would not have to offer medications to them.” I thought about the psychiatrist’s confession a lot, and I decided to heed her advice to exercise, while I slowly got myself off medication. I never liked taking medication, since the psychiatrist always said that I’d have to take it for life (plus, I was taking lithium and it had an uncomfortable metallic feeling in the mouth which I didn’t like).
Since reading the study on exercise, I became more intentional with the exercises I did. I always loved to exercise, but now, I was motivated to include exercise into my lifestyle such that it helped me manage the symptoms of bipolar disorder. I have been experimenting with different exercises for the past eight years, which has helped me maintain a high functioning lifestyle. I’ll detail my latest exercise program here and hopefully you can gain some inspiration and use it to start your own exercise routine.
Exercise has helped me manage my life in a significant way. I was able to finish my university because I exercised. I was able to excel in graduate school because I exercised. I have been able to live a generally happy and successful life because I exercise. Over time, I have done different exercises depending on where I was: I used to swim, go on bicycle rides and even hike. Currently, I have been running in the morning and going on occasional walks in the evening.
I usually wake up at 5:30 in the morning and prepare to run such that by 6am I am out of the house and on the road. I love running in the early morning because it’s usually so quiet and beautiful with the sun rising and the birds chirping. I normally jog for about 15 minutes, after which I take a ten-minute break to stretch and enjoy the scenery (there is usually a huge field where it’s so quiet from the busy traffic and houses). I will then do 30 seconds to 1-minute sprints as I head back home. I do the run every two days (Monday, Wednesday, Friday) and skip the weekend so that I can rest.
Why do I have a two days interval between each run? It has been shown that the effects of exercise on the brain last for about 48 hours, after which they start to wear off. The high and positive energy you get from exercise (due to your brain releasing chemicals associated with these positive feelings) starts to decline as the brain resets its normal function. After two days, the brain normally resets to a level where you don’t get the benefits of exercise anymore. If you are a person living with mental illness, you are always prone to succumb to the chemical imbalances in your brain that are brought about by mental illness. However, exercising every two days means that you can manipulate the chemical changes in your brain in the short term, which is all you need to keep bipolar disorder/depression/anxiety away. Note that some people find exercising every day to be more effective for them, or that exercising after three days works also. Whichever you prefer, go on and experiment with the exercise and track how it affects your mood.
Why do I do a jog, stretch and then sprint? I use the first 15 minutes during my run to warm up and get my heart rate up. This ensures that I don’t run out of energy too soon and I am able to finish my exercise routine. I take the 10-minute break so that I can stretch my legs and lessen any tightness that could result in an injury. This ensures that when I do the sprints, I do not injure myself easily, and that I am actually able to sprint. The sprint is the final step of my exercise since that’s when I do most of the work that gets my blood flowing and my brain releasing chemicals that help with mood regulation, as well as general body fitness. While the sprint is important, it is also very crucial to do the warmup and stretches so that I can be able to continue running for a long time. If you intend to adapt any exercise routine, consider the stretches and warmups as essential parts of your routine, just as important as the actual exercising.
The immediate effect of exercise that I have experienced is that I am able to focus on the work I do, and the relationships I have. After an exercise, my mind is usually sharper, quicker at understanding information, and I listen and interpret what someone is saying much better, which is a great quality in any relationship. A friend who listens and understands is a friend you want to keep around!
For the long term, I have noticed that the short-term benefits of exercise add up to better work and social life. Since I am able to keep away bipolar disorder symptoms away for two days, when I continue exercising, I can keep away these symptoms for months and even years, which makes my life more enjoyable and my relationships steady. In this way, the quality of my life experience is not affected by the mood imbalances that result from bipolar disorder. If you are not convinced of the benefits of exercise, here are some other good reasons to exercise:
Exercise is cheap. You don’t really need to buy anything – you can just get a pair of sports shoes and some trousers or do some high intensity body workouts in the house. This will save you so much money that you might otherwise spend on medications. Plus, exercise also helps you avoid other lifestyle diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure. So, exercise is usually a very good thing for our bodies. But one point that never get the attention that it deserves is the fact that exercise improves one’s experience of life, regardless of whether one is living with mental illness or not. You become more active, happier, and more social when you exercise.
I hope that you are now ready to use exercise as to fight off any mental pressures like stress, anxiety etc. Promise to yourself that you can keep to an exercise schedule no matter what, and also ask a friend or loved one to ensure that you follow your schedule. Once you have gotten hooked to exercise, I hope you will not stop. You will be using one of the most natural ways to manage stress and mental illness and live a healthy life.
It’s now the second year since I completely got off medication and seeing psychiatrists and psychologists. It’s not been easy and has required me to make serious life adjustments and choices, and exercise has been one of them. Do I still get depressed or manic episodes? Sometimes, but I have learned to realize when this happens, and I am always open to seeing a doctor if there is ever the need. But on the whole, exercise has worked better than any of the medications I ever took, enabled me to live a ‘normal’ life and also saved me from spending money on expensive medications and doctor appointments. I think living with bipolar disorder has been a blessing since it has pushed me to live life consciously, constantly experiment with the knowledge that I learn and make life more interesting in that way 🙂
If exercise has helped you in your mental health journey, please let me know (firstname.lastname@example.org) – I’d love to hear about how you’ve used exercise and share tips on ways to make it help even more people.
NB: it is recommended to consult with a psychiatrist/psychologist so they can advise you and monitor whether you may need medication even with the exercise.