Why exercise is important to your quality of life
Getting enough regular physical exercise is important for everyone’s health. But it’s especially important for people with bipolar disorder, as the condition itself (and often the medications needed to treat it) can be associated with additional physical health problems. For example, people with bipolar disorder have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease than people who don’t have bipolar disorder1. As well, some of the medications commonly used to manage bipolar disorder have side-effects that are part of the cause of metabolic syndrome, a group of risk factors including abdominal obesity and high blood sugar, blood lipids, blood pressure and cholesterol that can lead to type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease.2
Regular physical exercise has been shown to improve weight and cardiovascular health. Regular exercise has also been shown to improve mental health, especially depressed mood.3 So it may be very helpful to exercise on a regular basis when you're living with bipolar disorder.
How you can take action
The first step to adding more physical activity into your life is to create a fitness plan that works for you. Finding activities that you enjoy is important as this can help make physical activity something you look forward to, rather than a chore. Think of other ways you can make this new habit rewarding, such as having social support or creating an environment that encourages exercise (such as giving yourself a reward when you exercise or getting a positive response from others).
Another important aspect of increasing your level of physical exercise is to set goals that are realistic so they can be achieved. It doesn’t help to set the bar too high, like people sometimes do when making New Year's resolutions. If you set your goals too high, you likely won't be able to continue exercising at this level for more than a few weeks and then you may feel discouraged, or even injure yourself. You are likely to be more successful if you set a modest exercise goal and then, once it feels like something you can keep doing regularly, gradually increase it until you reach a reasonable exercise level. Research has shown that, during a manic or hypomanic phase, people with bipolar disorder are likely to set exercise goals that are too high and hard to keep (e.g., "work out for two hours every day") and, during depressive phases, very low goals (e.g., "walk to refrigerator for snack").13 Remember, it’s important to check in with your healthcare provider to ensure that it’s safe to go ahead with a new exercise plan before you begin.
New behaviours are a lot easier to stick with once a routine has been established. For example, you are much more likely to walk every morning if you have the routine of walking with a friend at the same time every day, so it becomes as much of a habit as brushing your teeth. It’s important to look at each of the things that may prevent you from starting and maintaining your fitness routine and see if you can problem-solve around each one. If motivation seems to be the problem, it can be helpful to write out a pros and cons list of exercising versus remaining inactive. Also, it can be helpful to challenge negative thinking patterns related to starting a new routine (e.g., all-or-nothing thinking, such as, “Since I missed my walk today, I might as well give up as I will never be able to become physically active”).
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