Exercise Could Be an Effective Treatment for Schizophrenia

Rob Wipond
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Due to the positive effects of exercise on specific neuroprotective brain proteins, physical exercise shows promise as a potential non-pharmacological treatment for schizophrenia, according to a study published in Psychiatry Research. Two other studies appearing in other journals this month provide support for these findings.

Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) “is known to be responsible for maintenance of neurons [and] has been implicated in the pathology of schizophrenia,” the Seoul National University researchers wrote. In their study, twenty-four patients diagnosed with schizophrenia participated in a 12-week program involving both aerobic and resistance exercises. Apart from many measurable increases in overall physical health, the researchers found that, “Serum BDNF values had significantly increased following the combined exercise program.”

“These results suggest that exercise induced modulation of BDNF may play an important role in developing non-pharmacological treatment for chronic schizophrenic patients,” they concluded.

Another study, a random-controlled trial led by Peking University researchers published online this month in Psychoneuroendocrinology, found decreases in BDNF in people diagnosed with schizophrenia. BDNF “may be involved in the pathophysiology of schizophrenia,” they wrote.

And a meta-analysis of 29 studies into the effects of exercise on BDNF also appeared online this month in the Journal of Psychiatric Research. “We found a moderate effect of increased BDNF following a single session of exercise,” the Boston University researchers wrote. “Regular exercise intensified effect of a single session of exercise on BDNF levels.” They also found “a small effect of increased resting BDNF levels after regular exercise.”

(Abstract) Increase of circulating BDNF levels and its relation to improvement of physical fitness following 12 weeks of combined exercise in chronic patients with schizophrenia: A pilot study (Kim, Hee-jae et al. Psychiatry Research. Published Online: October 06, 2014. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2014.09.020)

(Abstract) The interplay between BDNF and oxidative stress in chronic schizophrenia (Zhang, Xiang Yang et al. Psychoneuroendocrinology. Published Online: October 07, 2014. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.psyneuen.2014.09.029)

(Abstract) A meta-analytic review of the effects of exercise on brain-derived neurotrophic factor (Szuhany, Kristin L. et al. Journal of Psychiatric Research. Published Online: October 11, 2014. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychires.2014.10.003)

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Rob Wipond
Rob Wipond is a Victoria, British Columbia-based freelance journalist who has been writing on mental health issues for fifteen years. His research has particularly focused on the interfaces between psychiatry, the justice system, and civil rights. His articles have been nominated for three Canadian National Magazine Awards, six Western Magazine Awards, and four Jack Webster Awards for journalism. He can be contacted through his website.

15 COMMENTS

    • I’ve always said that Mark. My son is regularly convinced (his view of reality varies) that in his darkest hour he was put in prison and not the ‘hospital’ . The fact that he was dragged there in handcuffs via the back of a Police van can’t help – not because he had done anything wrong or had threatened to, but simply because he refused to be ‘hospitalised’ voluntarily.

      I have assured him many times that he did not go to prison as he would probably have found that experience less traumatic.

      In ‘hospital’, despite the fact that there was a gym and a table tennis table (and a music room), there rarely seemed to be staff available to facilitate it. They were all busy supervising the hourly (almost compulsory) smoking procession.

      Several times my daily visits were interrupted with a member of staff offering my son a smoking opportunity. They were never interrupted with the offer of excercise. He didn’t smoke before he was incarcerated in that hell-hole. He certainly did when i got him out.

      • Angry dad:

        I am so sorry your son was involuntarily hospitalized. As one parent of an involuntarily hospitalized child to another, there are so many things wrong with so-called ‘treatment’ for ‘schizophrenia’ that I can’t begin to list them all.

        I’m sorry that your son became a smoker in ‘prison’. My daughter was never ever violent until she was hospitalized, pinned down (after trying to flee) and forcibly injected with Haldol, causing her to come off the hinges and break with reality.

        If only we could change the paradigm of mental health care in our society magically overnight before our children are harmed more than they already have been! Unfortunately, I think it will take many, many more deaths and ruined lives before we can get politically and economically organized enough to conquor this colossal big Pharma psychiatric juggernaut and truly build a recovery based, trauma-informed, mental health system.

        The only way for future generations of children to escape the cycle our children are currently going through: forced drugging, non-compliance, reinstitutionalization leading to even more forced drugging, is if we stop getting our children hooked on dopamine blockers in the first place and offering them REAL CHOICES NOW!

        We know alternatives work! We know that the Soteria research was ignored for decades and the great, late Dr Mosher was quietly discredited. We know that at least for people in Finland, Open Family Dialogue works! We know that dialectical behavior therapy and the mindfulness practices it is based on works. We know that nutrition, yoga, and exercise WORK!

        Now, we have to stand should with shoulder with our children and other consumers/survivors to demand that psychiatry be stripped of its authority to influence judges to civil servants to strip our children of their constitutional rights and be permanently and chronically sickened with toxic drugs and shock when there are amble alternatives that ‘first do no harm.

        We also have to create a national network of AA type support groups for people trying to come of psych drugs and demand research funding to prove what we already know, that 90% if not 100% of people who come off psych drugs are undergoing withdrawal symptoms not the return of the original illness. We have to convince the general public that alternatives work, that the chemical brain imbalance of ‘mental illness’ is scientifically baseless, and create sanctuaries for people who never got a shot at alternatives so that they can begin to truly heal through community support

        God Bless and keep the faith Angry Dad. Though we are still in the minority, many parents like us are waking up to the truth. I tell everyone I know about the sins of psychiatry and its reductionist foundation: my co-workers, grocery clerks, gas attendants, customers, family members, etc. It’s amazing how many individuals are starting to wake up about these issues. Even the MD’s and pharmacists who I talk to are starting to show signs of understanding how very, warped psychiatry is.

        The only people I’ve encountered who seem unwilling or unable to have a genuine conversation about these issues are members of NAMI, I think because of the high number of NAMI members are parents of children who have been in the system for years, if not decades, and many can’t endure the thought that the system robbed their children of a chance for a full recovery.

        Although the road is long and the mountains we have to climb are many, through unity, righteousness, non-violence truth, and compassion, we can revolutionize this broken mental health care system, one healed heart at a time.

          • One piece of the puzzle that has to be addressed is that psychiatry is weaseling its way into the addiction recovery movement, clinic by clinic. People trying to get off addictive street drugs are now being told in great numbers that their addictions were masking an underlying mental health disorder and that individuals had been previously ‘self medicating’ due to an undiagnosed (until now) mental illness. Never mind trauma, loss, grief, and well, just sometimes the unendurable reality of being human in an unfair world. The result is that people are simply replacing street drugs with brain numbing altering psych drugs so individuals will no longer experience any unpleasant emotions due to loss, grief, and anxiety. There is absolutely no end that big Pharma won’t go to to open up new markets and keep the money spigot flowing. No amount is harm and abuse is enough. They won’t stop until 100% of our society is depending a psych drug to get through the day. No wonder our society is obsessed with zombies. It’s just art imitating reality. But yes, besides the fact that many AA members are now increasingly in collusion with psychiatry, I think AA can be a useful group support.

        • “My daughter was never ever violent until she was hospitalized, pinned down (after trying to flee) and forcibly injected with Haldol”
          I completely understand your daughter. It was a miracle that I didn’t murder any of my oppressors and that was not helped by the fact that I was drugged with benzos which made me amnesiac and totally unhinged. I threw chairs at them though (allegedly since I can’t remember anything thanks to their drugs) and I think they deserved it.

    • Exercise is good for young people and especially good for middle aged people and its the opposite to ‘doing nothing’. It works for me now but it didn’t work for me when I was full of drugs.

      Learning how to stop my head running away with me worked – but different things work for different people.

      • I did not learn how to stop my head running away till I was nearly fifty. I learned a form of centering prayer; although it has its roots in medieval Catholicism, it is very similar to Eastern mindfulness/meditation. I think that many forms of ‘prayer’ and meditation can be secularized too. It can be a wonderfully liberating moment when one learns that one does not have to be hooked by ones thoughts and focus on them willy nilly all over the board.

        One can cultivate the practice of discarding, rather quickly unpleasant or distracting thoughts, not be ignoring or resisting them but by going ‘ho hum’ and refocusing on a sybolic symbol or objective. Human beings who are prone to anxiety tend to be obsessed with two types of thoughts, worrying about the future and worrying about the future. In manic episodes, the thoughts may be pleasant but they can be reeling, breathtaking in quantity, diversity, and frequency. The secret to mental health, I think, is to learn to hack the brain by cultivating the ability to focus on the present moment; disassociation is the worst enemy of being in the present and many psych drugs cause disassociation. The best ally in learning how to be present is becoming intimately aware of one’s bodily sensations; even if one is experiencing extreme pain.

        I think the most under researched and promising avenues of mental health recovery and wellness is exploring the connection between trauma, the mind, and the body (trauma can live in the body and mental health starts in the gut and doesn’t begin from the neck up) and why does the power of suggestion work for some and not for others and why do placebos work?

        If we found out the answers to those questions, we could start taking a fraction of the billions we squander on developing and distributing pharmaceuticals (as well as managing the myriad secondary diseases they create) and reallocating them to early childhood development research and applied education, meditation training for children, cultural and oppression training for educators, investments in early interventions (building the village; not institutions) and primary education. What a wonderful new world it would be if we stopped drugging kids who aren’t cut out for working in cubicles for the rest of their lives, and instead, starting developing practices that used the miraculous plasticity and resilience of the human brain through optimal nutrition and positive socialization and coping skills, meaningful work and vocational training, and physical activity.

        • I love so much of what you have written. The idea of being “intimately aware of bodily sensations” is spot on. Exercise and healthy eating has done this for me! Also, “mental health starts in the gut.” The gut is an intuitive center that MUST be followed! Our gut knows what is good for us, and what is not. In our modern society, people lose touch with their “guts” and look to TV or makeup or drugs (Rx and illegal) to have a sense of homeostasis. But if people were simply in touch with their intuitive selves, they would be happier. I have developed this skill myself, and my life has never been more fulfilling.

          I like the idea of redistributing pharmaceutical expenses towards childhood research endeavors. However, I draw the line at “meditation training.” I personally have tried different religious practices, eastern and western, in an attempt to find balance and homeostasis. Each was worse than the last. When I try to meditate, the voices get louder, and they get more and more fuel and ideas, all contributing to the fantasy world they create to haunt me. I do know what you mean though. I think that, instead of calling it meditation, I would say “CBT and DBT techniques.” Calling it meditation really strikes a dangerous chord in me.

  1. Hi there,
    That’s it isn’t it, Open Dialogue has an emphasis on the community approach. I can’t imagine sitting down and talking to my family about how I feel, but at the same time they have been very supportive towards me. There are lots of different routes to wellbeing.

  2. Madmom
    The ‘twelve step’ was originally set up in the 1930’s and members refer to doctors in a 1930s manner.
    I think they are right in saying that members should not advise other members on medication. But a person can still talk about their own experience. Myself , I don’t trust doctors with psychiatric medication (full stop).