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Exercise and Bipolar Disorder

Exercise is an effective front-line therapy for people with anxiety and mild to moderate depression.  But what about those of us with bipolar disorder?

A research review published in Frontiers in Psychology looked at the limited number of studies available on exercise and bipolar disorder.  BP patients’ lives are restricted by obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other co-morbid diseases, so exercise can greatly improve quality of life and increase longevity.

But is anyone with BP exercising?

In one of the key studies of activity cited no participant achieved 150 minutes of moderate/vigorous exercise a week, the national guideline.  And 78% of the waking day was sedentary.

Other studies during which the participants did follow an exercise program resulted in a marked improvement in depressive symptoms and stress.  Weight loss in the BP group was actually greater than that in the control group.  The positive impact of exercise on co-morbid diseases and mood is clear.

But what about mania?

Concerns about exercise induced mania run through the studies, and in people prone to mania vigorous exercise did bring about an elevated mood, sometimes ramping into hypomania or full-blown mania.

But a few studies looked at the type of exercise that seemed to cause mania.

Rhythmic exercise like walking, running and swimming seemed to have a calming effect and were less likely to elevate the exerciser’s mood to dangerous levels.  The results on more vigorous, intermittent exercise were mixed.

On a closer look at the data, it seems the exercise itself may not be the cause of hypomania or mania at all.  It may come down to excessive goal setting.

Subjects who set ambitious exercise goals, continued to increase those goals, and pushed harder and harder to meet them were the most likely to experience mania.  Interestingly, these behaviors are all indicative of the impulsive striving often found in early mania.

So again, as in so much research on BP, we have a chicken and the egg problem.  Did the vigorous exercise and the goal setting lead to mania, or did budding mania lead to excessive goal setting and exercise?

Exercise is key to health, especially in managing the many conditions co-morbid with bipolar disorder that are lifestyle-based.  With so many people with BP living sedentary lives, some moderate exercise can only help.

If the impulse to exercise and intense competition with yourself drives you too hard, it may be a signal that an episode of mania is present, and healthy, even medical interventions should be made to moderate the episode.

Exercise, performed regularly and reasonably, will improve mood and physical health.  As with so many things concerning BP, too much too hard can be unhealthy.  But it’s still important to practice intentional movement.

So get up, move around and be well.  But don’t overdo it.  Know your body, watch for impulsiveness, and moderate your goals.  Any exercise can help.  It can help improve your quality of life, and it doesn’t have to make you manic.  Manage your physical and mental health with movement.  You’ll end up living longer, and better.

Exercise and Bipolar Disorder

George Hofmann

George is the author of Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis, from Changemakers Books. Visit George's site or join the Facebook group Practicing Mental Illness

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APA Reference
Hofmann, G. (2020). Exercise and Bipolar Disorder. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 14, 2020, from


Last updated: 6 Mar 2020
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