Exercise is an Effective Intervention for Schizophrenia

Rob Wipond
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Separately, two intervention trials and a meta-analysis of the scientific literature found that aerobic exercise significantly helps people struggling with schizophrenia.

In Schizophrenia Bulletin, Columbia University-led researchers wrote that a 12-week aerobic exercise program with 33 people improved the aerobic fitness, brain-derived neurotrophic factor [BDNF] levels, and neurocognition in the intervention group, while the treatment-as-usual group experienced setbacks in all of these areas.

“The results indicate that AE [aerobic exercise] is effective in enhancing neurocognitive functioning in people with schizophrenia and provide preliminary support for the impact of AE-related BDNF up-regulation on neurocognition in this population,” concluded the researchers. “Poor AF [aerobic fitness] represents a modifiable risk factor for neurocognitive dysfunction in schizophrenia for which AE training offers a safe, nonstigmatizing, and side-effect-free intervention.”

Also in Schizophrenia Bulletin, researchers in the Netherlands examined the effects of six months of bicycling exercise on people with and without a diagnosis of schizophrenia and found increases in “white matter fiber tracts” in the brain “whereas life-as-usual leads to a decrease in fiber integrity.” The findings, they wrote have “important implications for understanding the effect of fitness programs on the brain in both healthy subjects and patients with schizophrenia.”

Publishing in Psychological Medicine, University of Manchester-led researchers conducted a meta-analysis of the research into exercise interventions in schizophrenia. They reported that the interventions “can improve physical fitness and other cardiometabolic risk factors.” They also found that overall functioning, neurocognition and psychiatric symptoms were significantly reduced with at least 90 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise per week. “Interventions that implement a sufficient dose of exercise, in supervised or group settings, can be feasible and effective interventions for schizophrenia,” the researchers concluded.

Firth, J., J. Cotter, R. Elliott, P. French, and A. R. Yung. “A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Exercise Interventions in Schizophrenia Patients.” Psychological Medicine 45, no. 07 (May 2015): 1343–61. doi:10.1017/S0033291714003110. (Abstract)

Kimhy, David, Julia Vakhrusheva, Matthew N. Bartels, Hilary F. Armstrong, Jacob S. Ballon, Samira Khan, Rachel W. Chang, et al. “The Impact of Aerobic Exercise on Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor and Neurocognition in Individuals With Schizophrenia: A Single-Blind, Randomized Clinical Trial.” Schizophrenia Bulletin, March 23, 2015, sbv022. doi:10.1093/schbul/sbv022. (Abstract)

Svatkova, Alena, René C. W. Mandl, Thomas W. Scheewe, Wiepke Cahn, René S. Kahn, and Hilleke E. Hulshoff Pol. “Physical Exercise Keeps the Brain Connected: Biking Increases White Matter Integrity in Patients With Schizophrenia and Healthy Controls.” Schizophrenia Bulletin, March 31, 2015, sbv033. doi:10.1093/schbul/sbv033. (Abstract)

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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.

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8 COMMENTS

  1. Of course, the antipsychotic drugs that “schizophrenia” sufferers are prescribed make it hard to move around freely and increase weight and decrease cardiovascular health, all of which make exercising much more difficult. I’d love to see exercise incorporated as an option for folks in a Soteria-like setting. I know the Quakers in the old days did a lot of long walks which seemed to be very healing.

    As usual, the standard of care makes actions leading toward genuine healing more difficult rather than easier to do.

    —- Steve

    • I’m starting to wonder if there is not some severe psychiatric illness transmissible by prolonged contact with psychiatry during medical training. I think most of the professionals suffer from it. I’d name it Ignorant/Arrogant Bloated Ego Disorder (IABED). Often co-morbid with narcissistic personality disorder and even anti-social personality disorder. Unfortunately as for now it’s incurable though there are rare cases of spontaneous remission. I think it should be included in the DSM-VI. It’s a nagging problem and even close to 100% of practicing psychiatrists could be suffering from it.

      We can play this game too.