Did you know that exercise can reduce your risk for developing a mental illness?
In a Swedish study by Svensson et. al., it was shown that those who participate in the Vasaloppet, Sweden’s largest annual cross-country ski competition, were 54% less likely to develop bipolar disorder than non-skiers.
And they found something interesting in their study: for women, those who skied faster had a higher risk of developing the disorder, but the same results were not found for men. Fascinating, isn’t it?
The study is the first large-scale, longitudinal study on the relationship between exercise and bipolar disorder lasting from 1989 to 2010 and studying over 300,000 skiers and non-skiers, including both men and women.
Because correlational studies can be quite sensitive, the researchers had to take a couple of sensitivities into account all throughout the course of the study, such as excluding any individual developing any psychiatric disorder within 5 years of inclusion.
This is to prevent a phenomenon called reverse causation, where variable b affects variable a rather than the other way around; in this case, this was done to prevent the possibility that people with bipolar disorder are less likely to participate in the Vasaloppet rather than skiers being less likely to develop the disorder.
Since bipolar disorder is often initially misdiagnosed for other psychiatric disorders such as depression and is also often comorbid with anxiety, participants developing such disorders within the same time were also excluded to prevent reverse causation.
Despite having taken these sensitivities into account, the researchers assure that the resulting data remains significant.
Although a previous study by Aberg et. al. already examined the relationship between skiing and bipolar disorder, Svensson et. al. were the first to study both men and women in a large-scale, longitudinal study, as the previous authors only studied men.
Why bipolar awareness is important
It was estimated that around 46 million people in the world suffer from bipolar disorder. But what makes bipolar disorder unique from unipolar depression?
Unipolar depression, also known as major depressive disorder (MDD), typically only stays in one state (the depressive state), where a person experiences feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and melancholy for a long period of time.
On the other hand, people with bipolar disorder also experience manic episodes on top of depressive ones.
There are two types of bipolar disorder: bipolar I and bipolar II. People diagnosed with bipolar II only experience hypomania, but their diagnosis can change to bipolar I, which experiences both mania and hypomania; however, the diagnosis of people with bipolar I disorder cannot be changed to bipolar II.
What are mania and hypomania?
Mania is defined as an “extremely unstable, euphoric state” where one experiences large bursts of energy, racing thoughts, reckless behavior, and a general feeling of invincibility. A milder form of mania is called hypomania, which is less severe and lasts for a shorter period of time.
One of the misconceptions about mania is that it is good because it makes you more productive because of increased energy, extreme self confidence, and needing little to no sleep or food, but this is not true.
Although it can feel good while occurring, mania can be very dangerous, because it can make the person lose a sense of hunger and exhaustion which makes them forget to eat or sleep for more than 24 hours and drive them to do impulsive, dangerous activities.
Since bipolar disorder usually starts manifesting in several depressive episodes, it is often initially misdiagnosed as unipolar depression and ends up with the disorder being mistreated, though it is also possible for depressive disorders to turn into bipolar disorder.
People suffering from bipolar disorder do not have a middle ground between mania and depression, with each phase lasting for an indefinite amount of time.
Bipolar disorder was found to manifest differently in men and women, in that men with bipolar disorder were more likely to develop substance abuse, while women usually develop psychiatric comorbidities, such as anxiety.
It is important to talk about bipolar disorder because the disability it causes is extremely significant due to its early onset, chronicity, and severity, which means it drastically affects the lives of the people living with it.
Can bipolar disorder be completely cured?
Unfortunately, bipolar disorder cannot be cured, but they can be treated. People with bipolar disorder are seen to have around 10 years shorter life expectancy, which is attributed to poor cardiovascular health, other comorbidities, and an increased risk for suicide.
One could live the rest of their lives experiencing mania and depression, while others may feel “normal” for a long time, but there’s no guarantee that their symptoms will never come back.
However, there are several treatments that can make bipolar disorder livable, and it remains possible for people with bipolar disorder to still live a long, healthy life.
When treated properly, bipolar disorder doesn’t have to be life-threatening.
How exercise prevents the onset of bipolar disorder
Studies show that in general, people with bipolar disorder are significantly less physically active and fit than the general population. This could be attributed to the depressive phases of the disorder.
However, it was also found that during a manic state, people with bipolar disorder show high levels of physical activity, which can mostly be associated with the large bursts of energy that mania brings about.
This makes studying the correlation between bipolar disorder and physical activity quite complicated, as mania, in many ways, is starkly contrasting with depression.
The previous study by Aberg et. al. found that Swedish men with the lowest physical activity were the most likely to develop bipolar disorder. However, men with moderate physical activity were less likely to develop the disorder compared with men with the highest physical activity, indicating that exercise intensity matters.
This point was further proven by Svensson et. al. upon finding that women who skied faster were more likely to develop bipolar disorder than those who skied slower, showing that exercise intensity can possibly affect the likelihood of developing the disorder.
However, the study doesn’t make it clear whether or not intense exercise can trigger manic episodes.
In conclusion, the study shows that exercise is attributed to a generally lower possibility of developing bipolar disorder.