A Different Take on Exercise, and Why I Want You To Join Me!

Long before I was diagnosed with postpartum bipolar one disorder, I led an active life.  After college graduation, I became an American Council on Exercise certified personal trainer and I worked in a family-owned gym  My duties included greeting members and creating their fitness programs. 

While working there for two years, I noticed that members who worked out consistently seemed to be the happiest and healthiest of all.  I also knew from firsthand experience that working out made me feel good. 

When I began formally studying exercise in the 1990’s, everything I read supported the premise that exercise could alleviate depression.  While I thought that was great, I had NO idea that bipolar depression would almost destroy me, and that one day exercise would help keep my bipolar depression at bay. 

Fast forward to 2013. By then I had been hospitalized for bipolar depression a whopping seven times.   After I was released from the hospital, exercise was the last thing I wanted to do!  Despite that fact, my psychiatrist encouraged me to work out twenty to thirty minutes every day unless I was very sick.  During my personal training days I would have snorted at him and said, “No sweat!” (pun intended!) 

When he advised me to exercise daily at a mild-moderate intensity doing a low-impact activity such as walking, swimming, or hiking,  I was totally daunted. I wanted to comply with my doctor’s recommendation, however, because he had already been profoundly helpful.  After overseeing numerous medication trials that didn’t work for me, he remained patient and optimistic.  He suggested that I try yet another medication combination for my treatment-resistant bipolar depression, and because of his guidance my depression finally lifted. 

I trusted him. 

I had a slightly dusty elliptical training machine in my husband’s office – at least I didn’t hang laundry to dry on it!  I hoisted myself on the machine, wanting my experience to be over before it even began.  If you were to watch me exercise,  you would never have believed I trained clients and led circuit-training classes back in the day!  With a bottle of water beside me, I began a twenty-minute-long routine. When I finished, I felt a sense of accomplishment and well being that lingered the rest of the afternoon and evening. 

Since that fateful day I’ve kept up, for the most part, my daily workouts over the past two years. Sometimes I have to juggle the workout time from late afternoon to early evening, but I fit it in. You might prefer mornings to exercise – do what appeals to you the most.  My daily steady exercise habit  is nothing short of miraculous and yes, it’s a commitment. 

I consider these daily workouts  to be a different form of medication for my bipolar disorder. I’m very fortunate in that I have a family that supports me in this endeavor.  It helps that they know it’s “doctor’s orders” and that exercise is essential for my mood stability.  (By “support” I mean that my husband watches our young children while I work out if he’s able to do it.) 

Life has not been easy since I decided to exercise daily.  I’ve had a couple setbacks in which my depression began to descend due to life events, but it dissipated more quickly than it ever had before.  I believe that apart from my medication, my exercising has played a tremendous part in stabilizing my mood and helping me recover from depressive episodes faster. 

Dr. Larry Leith, author of “Exercising Your Way to Better Mental Health” emphasizes that it’s not necessary to be a fitness fanatic to reap the mental health benefits of working out.  Dr. Leith believes “three to four weekly sessions lasting fifteen to thirty minutes appear long enough to produce both physiological improvements and reduced depression.”  Dr.Leith maintains that one of the most popular theories why exercise is thought to help is based on endorphin release.  Although walking and jogging/running are exercises that have been most consistently associated with reduced depression, cycling, aerobics, swimming and weight lifting have shown to be effective.  He writes that “research hasn’t shown one perfect exercise for depression, but the exercises mentioned here involve large muscle groups and are rhythmic in nature. Any exercise with these elements will most likely help reduce depression.” 

During my personal training days I became a freelance writer, and I had the exciting opportunity to interview the bestselling author and International Bipolar Foundation Scientific Advisory Board Member Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison for a fitness article I was working on.  I asked her, “What is your general opinion on aerobic exercise in relation to those diagnosed with depression?”  She answered, “I think it is an important adjunct in mild to moderate depression.  People with more severe depression are usually unable to exercise.”  Now, Dr. Jamison is right –if you’re laid up with debilitating depression, no one should be pressuring you to break a sweat.  All in good time.  You’ll get there. 

Please make sure you have your doctor’s blessing before you incorporate a fitness routine into your life.  I recommend that you start out with something small, i.e. five or ten minutes tops. You can add to your overall time later.  Try taking a very short walk. With the current weather, it might not be possible to get outdoors. Consider renting or purchasing a low-impact (i.e. you’re not stomping around, stressing your knee and ankle joints) cardiovascular workout DVD or video for beginners with reputable reviews – you want to be safe!  The key is to get your blood moving. 

As you begin feeling better, gradually lengthen the amount of time you’re able to exercise to twenty minutes total and see how you feel.  A couple months later you can increase your time to thirty minutes total and re-assess how you feel.  Is it too much?  Are you overwhelmed?  It’s far better to stay at twenty minutes if you’ll stick with it for the long haul.   If you can join a friend to work out or attend a class, you’ll have a built-in accountability factor and social stimulation as well. 

Depending on my day, it’s much harder to start working out than it is on other days.  But within the first two to five minutes I feel markedly better – I’m always amazed by the shift in my mood and energy.  I encourage you to start slow-but-steady, and I guarantee that if you make the effort to fit exercise into your day, you will reap the rewards – better health, sleep, and best of all, less depression and more mood stabilization! I wish you the best of luck in incorporating fitness into your life, and thanks for reading! 

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