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.
Why do we need to play football, swim, run? We find other animals love exercise too. We find kittens playing. We find dogs playing. Sometimes a cow will suddenly raise its tail and run (or exercise, depending on how you want to interpret this behavior ) Exercise is useful for several reasons: (1) it promotes friendships and teamwork, (2) it promotes healthy development of our bodies, (3) it gets the heart rate up and helps in prevention of many lifestyle illnesses. Basically, exercise is usually a very good thing for our bodies. This is why it is recommended in all schools. In high school especially, exercise keeps teenagers occupied and helps them stay away from drugs and other dangerous activities that their developing brains are more attracted to. Most importantly, 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.
Exercise has helped me manage my life in a significant way. I was able to finish my university courses because I exercised. I was able to excel at 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.
Since I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I have been read every mental illness book that I can find. And I decided that I was not going to read just for the sake of knowledge; I was going to read so that I could use the knowledge I learned to live life fully despite the bipolar disorder diagnosis. Since then, my life has been a constant experiment. Getting a mental illness has been a blessing since it pushed me to live life consciously and experiment with the knowledge that I learn. 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 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. 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 said this, “If I could make my patients 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 have heeded her advice to exercise.
Since reading the study on exercise, I became more intentional with the exercise I did. I always loved 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.
For the past year, I have been going on runs in the morning. 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. I must mention 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 and life experience.
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. I have to mention though that it is very important 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 a day, 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. There are 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. All it needs is some motivation and promise to yourself that you can keep to an exercise schedule no matter what. And once you have gotten hooked to exercise, I hope you will not stop. Exercise is therefore the most natural way to manage mental illness and live a healthy life.
If exercise has helped you in your mental health journey, please let me know – I’d love to hear about how you’ve used exercise and share tips on ways to make it help even more people.
Also, 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.