How Can Exercise Help Bipolar Disorder?

Medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PMHNP-BC on March 29, 2016Written by Kristeen Cherney on March 29, 2016

How Can Exercise Help Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a mental health disorder characterized by both “low” and “high” feelings. Unlike other types of mood disorders, these feelings go back and forth with bipolar. The switches can also be unpredictable.

Like other mental health disorders, bipolar is most often treated with medications. However, lifestyle changes are becoming increasingly popular because of fears about medications. During “low” periods, you might find an especially improved mood from working out. For these reasons, the recommends working out for 30 minutes, five days per week.

Despite the potential benefits, exercise can possibly aggravate symptoms of mania, and may be hard to engage in when the person is feeling depressed. In other cases, exercise might have many physical, but no mental, benefits.

Understanding Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder was once referred to as “manic depression.” This is because the disorder is marked by symptoms of both depression and mania. The severity and frequency of these highs and lows are unpredictable. Some people experience mood swings only a few times per year, while others shift multiple times per week.

Role of Exercise in Bipolar Disorder

Exercise itself increases endorphins. These are known as the brain’s “feel-good” chemicals. Overtime, higher levels of endorphins can improve your mood. This is why exercise is often recommended for people with depression. It’s also used as a stress-busting measure, as well as one that might prevent symptoms of the blues.

Any amount of activity can make you feel good. Outdoor activities, such as walking, have the additional benefit of fresh air. As with healthy eating, you can reap the most benefits from exercise by doing it regularly.

What the Evidence Says

Given the fact that exercise is known to increase endorphins, it’s easy to assume that working out might help bipolar disorder. However, there is still a lack of clinical evidence to prove that such a benefit exists.

One found that there appears to be a correlation between a sedentary lifestyle and bipolar disorder. This could indicate that a lack of physical activity increases the risk for symptoms.

Researchers in the same study also found the possibility of increased mania symptoms connected with exercise. However, they also noted that exercise benefitted depression symptoms.

Another found that exercise might benefit obese bipolar disorder patients when combined with nutrition and wellness training. What is not clear is how much benefit exercise alone has, and whether or not it may be useful for people who are within a normal weight range.

Exercise and Bipolar Medications

Sometimes bipolar medications can lead to weight gain. This is often caused by metabolic changes in which your body doesn’t burn calories as efficiently as it did before. Other times, a new medication will increase your appetite.

The following types of drugs cause potential weight gain:

  • antidepressants
  • antipsychotics
  • antidepressant-antipsychotic combinations (such as Sybyax)
  • mood stabilizers

Consider talking to your doctor about exercise as a possible weight loss measure if you find that you are suddenly gaining weight after starting any of these medications. Uncontrollable weight gain might warrant a change in prescription — never stop taking your medicine or change the dosage on your own.

Also, ask your doctor about the dangers of exercise if you take lithium. According to the , working out with this medication can cause interactions.

Other Benefits of Exercise

Aside from the potential benefits exercise may have for depression symptoms, working out also has other advantages. Among these include:

  • weight management
  • decreased risk for osteoporosis
  • increased muscle mass
  • better flexibility
  • increased self-confidence


When considering your overall health, it is often better to exercise than to not engage in regular physical activity. Still, you should not rely on exercise alone for bipolar treatment. Exercise should be integrated into your lifestyle along with other healthy habits. Given the chronic nature of bipolar disorder, your quality of life will also likely depend on medications and therapy.

You should always check with your doctor before engaging in a new regimen, especially if you are new to exercise. Discontinue activities if you feel any pain, or notice any worsening of symptoms.

CMS Id: 14400