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Can exercise help manage symptoms of bipolar disorder?

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Physical health is important for people living with a mental illness. Not only does it help reduce the risk of physical illness, it's also a good way to engage with others, get out in to the community and get the endorphins pumping.

SANE Peer Ambassador Ceris is a passionate advocate for using exercise as a way to help manage mental health symptoms, so we asked her 'can exercise be a form of medicine?'.

Who is Ceris?

I'm a marketing professional, mum of two, Agatha Christie fan and One Direction tragic.

I've also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

How would you describe your experiences with bipolar disorder?

It was a real shock to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I was 38 years old and bipolar disorder wasn't something I'd considered, despite a strong family history. It's been three years since I was diagnosed and it's been really confronting and hard to come to terms with.

With hindsight, the signs of mania were obvious. I was energetic, extremely creative and I was not sleeping much. I would be up all night baking and writing song lyrics (I don't write songs!), but still felt fine without sleep. I also became very creative at work and developed a deep obsession with the boy band, One Direction. Even with treatment and support, living with bipolar disorder on a day to day level can be very difficult.

I was at my doctors for an unrelated issue and she started asking about my sleep and noticed red flags straight away.

Because of my bipolar disorder, I've been hospitalised multiple times, I've self-harmed and had mixed experiences with managing my diagnosis through the health system.

I've experienced suicidal thoughts, been on the receiving end of stigma because of my illness and I've had severe medication issues. 

I worry about having to give up my high-pressure career due to my illness.

How does exercise help you manage bipolar symptoms?

I run, walk and attend fitness classes three-four times per week, including boot camp, boxing and high-intensity interval training.

During episodes of mania exercise allows me to direct my relentless powerful energy in a healthy way rather than a destructive way. It also tires me out so there's a better chance of being able to sleep.

During episodes of depression, I find exercise even more powerful. If I can get myself up and out, it gives me a huge mood boost even if it is only for a short time.

And while walking and long-distance running are great, it's really the high-intensity interval training that gives me the huge lift that can last for most of the day.

My trainer is very encouraging, always checks in on me if I don't show up, designs great workouts to get the heart thumping and is just pushy enough!

Exercise is a crucial to helping manage my bipolar disorder. I personally would say I find exercise as crucial to my disease management as my medications.

In addition to exercise, I also visit an outpatient program at private psychiatric hospital and see a psychiatrist and psychologist fortnightly.

Ceris recently shared her experiences on SBS Insight. You can watch 'The Exercise Pill' on SBS this Tuesday, July 3 at 8:30pm, or via SBS on Demand.

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