3 Ways Aerobic Exercise Improves Schizophrenia Symptoms

Aerobic exercise improves cognitive function for people with schizophrenia.

Posted Aug 12, 2016

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In recent years, the neuroprotective powers of aerobic exercise to ward off cognitive decline—while improving mood and lowering your risk for anxiety and depression—have been confirmed by countless studies.

This morning, a first-of-its-kind study was published which reports that 12 weeks of aerobic exercise training significantly improved schizophrenia patients' brain functioning. In conjunction with medications, aerobic exercise augmented patients’ ability to cope with the long-term mental health symptoms of schizophrenia by improving cognitive function.

The acute phase of schizophrenia is generally marked by hallucinations and delusions, which are typically treated with pharmaceuticals. Although the medications can be effective, many schizophrenia patients taking prescription drugs experience pervasive cognitive deficits that include: slower information processing, loss of concentration, and poor memory.

For this analysis, researchers from the University of Manchester Institute of Brain, Behaviour and Mental Health in the UK conducted a meta-analysis that combined data from 10 independent clinical trials with a total of 385 patients with schizophrenia.

The August 2016 paper, “'Aerobic Exercise Improves Cognitive Functioning in People with Schizophrenia: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” by Joseph Firth, Dr. Brendon Stubbs, and Professor Alison Yung was published today in Schizophrenia Bulletin.  

This meta-analysis showed that schizophrenia patients who are treated with moderate-to-vigorous aerobic exercise programs—in combination with medication—improved their overall brain functioning more than those who were treated solely with medications.

The areas of cognitive improvement that benefitted most from aerobic training were patients' ability to understand social situations, increased attention spans, and better working memory—which is a reflection of how much information someone can hold in his or her mind at one time.

   3 Ways Aerobic Exercise Improves Schizophrenia Symptoms by Firth et al.

  1. Ability to Understand Social Situations
  2. Attention span
  3. Working Memory

According to the researchers, there was also dose-response evidence from these studies showing that aerobic training programs which included greater amounts of exercise had the greatest effects on cognitive functioning. In a statement, Joe Firth said:

"Cognitive deficits are one aspect of schizophrenia which is particularly problematic. They hinder recovery and impact negatively upon people's ability to function in work and social situations.

Furthermore, current medications for schizophrenia do not treat the cognitive deficits of the disorder. We are searching for new ways to treat these aspects of the illness, and now research is increasingly suggesting that physical exercise can provide a solution."

Conclusion: Exercise Can Reduce Neurocognitive Deficits Associated with Schizophrenia

Joe Firth concluded: "These findings present the first large-scale evidence supporting the use of physical exercise to treat the neurocognitive deficits associated with schizophrenia. Using exercise from the earliest stages of the illness could reduce the likelihood of long-term disability, and facilitate full, functional recovery for patients."

In an April 2016 Psychology Today blog post, “What Makes Aerobic Exercise Like Miracle-Gro for Your Brain?” I reported on groundbreaking research by Keith Nuechterlein, and a team of researchers at a free schizophrenia clinic at UCLA, who discovered that schizophrenia treatments improved dramatically when they are “turbocharged with aerobic exercise.”

The UCLA researchers concluded that helping young adults with schizophrenia as soon as possible after their first psychotic breakdown with the triad of: aerobic exercise, neurocognitive training, and antipsychotic medication could be a winning formula. Typically, the early stages of schizophrenia are when individuals tend to be capable of making long-lasting improvements, which is why early intervention is of paramount importance.

Although the findings from UCLA focused on a specific subgroup of young adults with schizophrenia, a wide range of other studies have shown the ‘Miracle-Gro’ power of aerobic exercise to trigger the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) for people from all walks of life. Hopefully, these findings will lead to more effective treatments for schizophrenia and serve as motivation for all of us to be more physically active throughout our lifespans.