Research update from Gemma McCullough: Physical activity, inactivity and mood in bipolar disorder

During the Covid-19 pandemic I have continued to work on my PhD research exploring relationships between physical activity, inactivity, and mood in people living with bipolar disorder. I am now doing this alongside working in the NHS as a mental health practitioner in Scotland.

Thank you again to all the participants who took part in either the interviews and/or the activity and mood monitoring study in 2018/2019. Below are some early findings from this research which I am delighted to share.

51 BDRN participants took part in a week-long activity and mood monitoring study, wearing a small activity monitor, and keeping a daily mood diary. Early analysis of the results shows that there are relationships between individuals’ daily physical activity levels and their mood. For example, when individuals were less physically active their reported depression scores were higher (or in other words when individuals were more physically active they reported feeling less depressed). What the findings can’t tell us are the reasons for this relationship which are likely to be complex and possibly bidirectional. Data from the interviews I carried out with a subset of participants is helping me to explore these relationships in more depth.

The interviews revealed that the relationship between physical activity, inactivity and mood differs between people who have bipolar disorder and can be changeable within the same person at different times. Many participants described a constant state of trying to maintain balance by juggling various aspects, and that this becomes more challenging to maintain with more severe mood symptoms. The influence of factors such as medication, motivation and mood ‘triggers’ were also perceived to be important by participants.

Interestingly physical activity and inactivity were both described as being both helpful and unhelpful for mood regulation. Participants identified that knowing that increasing their physical activity when low in mood may be helpful but that the factors involved were more complex than just the activity itself. Similarly, participants reported that being less active could be helpful during a high mood episode, but that this was difficult to do. To date many lifestyle interventions which aim to increase physical activity in people who live with a mood disorder have not necessarily considered the need to balance activity and mood, or considered both the positive and the negative impact of being more or less active.

I am still working through all the data and look forward to updating you with further details as I progress.