New trial confirms aerobic exercise does improve schizophrenia symptoms
Exercise is good for you. This isn't news of course, but there is a growing body of research that is starting to suggest that exercise can improve a variety of cognitive deficits in conditions we traditionally wouldn't think physical activity could affect. A new trial into the effects of aerobic exercise on schizophrenia has confirmed it does indeed lessen negative symptoms associated with the condition.
Our understanding into the complexity of schizophrenia has rapidly grown over recent years. What was previously thought to be just a mental health condition has now been expanded into a much more complicated disorder that may even have whole-body inflammatory roots.
There is also increasing evidence that exercise can directly improve the symptoms associated with schizophrenia. A new study from a team of Taiwanese researchers has bolstered this hypothesis with a solid case-control study homing in on exactly what kind of exercise can result in beneficial effects for those diagnosed with the disorder.
The trial took 62 subjects with diagnosed schizophrenia and split them into two groups: an exercise group that underwent at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise up to five times per week for 12 weeks, and a control group that underwent a less-intense stretching and toning program for the same duration.
All the participants continued their prescribed antipsychotic medications throughout the trial and were evaluated by a psychiatrist three times: at the beginning of the trial, at the end, and three-months following. The evaluating psychiatrist was blind to the groups so they were uninfluenced by knowledge of which program each subject had undergone.
The results were compellingly clear, aerobic exercise significantly reduced both negative symptoms and general psychopathology in all subjects compared to the control group that embarked on lower-intensity exercises. Interestingly, the improvements continued to increase following the initial 12-week program as indicated by the three-month follow up. However, it is unclear whether this is because patients continued to exercise independently as this was not tracked by the study.
There are several hypotheses that could explain how this kind of exercise may be reducing the negative symptoms associated with schizophrenia. One commonly raised suggestion is that aerobic exercise could be increasing the levels of an important brain protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Some evidence has pointed to low serum levels of BDNF in the brain as being associated with the psychopathology of schizophrenia, so it is reasonable to hypothesize that BDNF-increasing exercise would reduce negative symptoms.
Other hypotheses suggested to explain this compelling association include vigorous exercise increasing levels of glutamate in the brain, which has been demonstrated to potentially reduce symptoms of schizophrenia, and exercise helping regulate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, an area of the brain seen to be dysfunctional in subjects with schizophrenia.
The new study was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry.