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Positive effects of physical activity on bipolar disorder

Copyrights: Marko Milivojevic

Positive effects of physical activity on bipolar disorder

While sport has been found to help mitigate mental health issues like depression and anxiety, nascent research has noted the positive impact that sport and physical activity can have in managing symptoms of more serious illnesses like bipolar disorder.

May is observed by several countries, organisations and people around the world as Mental Health Awareness Month, to generate vital awareness on the subject and the importance of mental well-being. Mental Health Awareness Month represents an opportunity to fight stigma, provide support to those in need, further educate society and advocate for policies that support people with mental illnesses.

Sport and mental health

Regular participation in sport is known to positively impact mental health in a variety of ways. According to Sport England, participation in physical activity can have a positive impact on mood, reduce stress and anxiety, increase self-esteem and be an effective tool to prevent the onset of depression. A 2011 report, titled ‘Start Active, Stay Active’ by the UK government department of health stated that there is an approximately 20-30% lower risk for depression as well as distress for adults participating in daily physical activity.

Further, a report by the Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries in Western Australia found that participating in a sport 1-3 times a week reduced psychological distress by 34%, and participation 4 times a week can lead to a 46% reduction.

What is bipolar disorder?

The National Alliance on Mental Illness in the United States defines bipolar disorder as “a mental illness that causes dramatic shifts in a person’s mood, energy and ability to think clearly. People with bipolar experience high and low moods — known as mania and depression — which differ from the typical ups-and-downs most people experience.”

There are three types of bipolar disorder, and all of them include clear changes in mood, energy and activity levels. These moods range from periods of extreme elation, irritability, or energized behavior (manic episodes) to very sad, indifferent, or hopeless periods (depressive episodes). There are also less severe manic periods are known as hypomanic episodes.

How physical activity can help

While physical activity is not a cure for bipolar disorder, it does have a promising track record of preventing depression and reducing anxiety, and represents an opportunity to mitigate or manage some of the symptoms for people with bipolar disorder.

Sport and physical activity can help improve and manage symptoms of bipolar disorder by:

  • Releasing endorphins: Physical activity and exercise stimulate the production of endorphins in the brain, along with other chemicals that are associated with good moods such as dopamine and serotonin. This release of endorphins elevates mood and is often associated with the ‘runners high’ and satisfaction that arises after a difficult workout. Additionally, it can help regulate the levels of cortisol, a stress hormone commonly found in high levels among those suffering from depression.
  • Neurogenesis: It is theorised that there is a connection between exercise and neurogenesis. A 2015 review of exercise, bipolar disorder and mechanistic pathways found that there is a positive effect of exercise on brain health, including nerve cell growth in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that supports mood regulation.
  • Providing an outlet: Several hypomania-prone people can have addictive personalities, which results in the pursuit of pleasurable activities like listening to music, consuming chocolate and caffeine to excessive devotion to work, exercise, and other activities. While over exercising can be a concern, if well managed, it is a suitable alternative to more damaging addictions, including alcohol and substance abuse. 

Several people with severe mental health conditions also tend to live more sedentary lifestyles. Thus, it is extremely important that they are able to add some form of physical activity to their daily routines. Inculcating sport and physical activity into their routines can help combat symptoms of bipolar disorder, but also those of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, complications that can arise down the line.

As the world begins to realise the importance of mental health and recognise the prevalence of mental illnesses, more research must be undertaken to understand how sport can help those that are suffering. There is promising evidence to show that sport and physical activity can provide relief to those suffering from bipolar disorder, especially in managing specific symptoms, and more attention needs to be paid by practitioners and researchers on this area.


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Kabeer Arjun


Tuesday, May 25, 2021 - 09:30