Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a recurrent and severe mood disorder that affects 1-5% of Canadian teens. The disorder places a significant burden on all aspects of life, from school to social and family functioning. Researchers are now learning that exercise plays an important role in managing the disorder, says Dr. Ben Goldstein, Director of the Centre for Youth Bipolar Disorder, Hurvitz Brain Sciences Program at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. He was one presenter at the most recent Speaker Series entitled Exercise and Mental Health: Benefits Across the Lifespan.
Bipolar disorder causes swings between abnormally high and low moods and can interfere with attention span and memory. The condition has also been linked with premature heart disease. Studies have documented that patients with bipolar disorder die about a decade earlier than patients with heart disease in the general population. And the American Heart Association now recognizes major depression and bipolar disorder in teens as conditions that give rise to early heart disease. Dr. Goldstein says this shift means finding treating approaches that address both mind and body is critical. And a top area of interest at Sunnybrook is the role that exercise can play in the treatment of bipolar disorder.
Researchers know that teens with bipolar disorder are less likely than their healthy peers to do aerobic activity. And yet, a Sunnybrook brain imaging study showed that even a single bout of aerobic exercise can affect emotions, attention span and overall brain response. Following just 30 minutes of cycling, changes in brain activity during an attention test reflected a so-called ‘normalizing effect’.
These findings are encouraging, but there are still many unanswered questions around “dosing” exercise. How intense should the exercise be? For how long? For whom, and under what conditions? For now, research continues to help determine the best approaches around ‘prescribing’ exercise for bipolar disorder.