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Exercise & Schizophrenia

By Carol Sarao ; Updated August 14, 2017

Schizophrenia is a severe, chronic brain disorder which affects about 1 percent of the American population. Symptoms, which may come and go unpredictably, can include hallucinations and delusions, or persistent illogical beliefs. Schizophrenia can be disturbing, baffling and challenging to deal with, but it is not hopeless; many symptoms can be controlled with medication. Recent research indicates that regular exercise can play an important role in improving the physical and mental well-being of people with schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia Features

Schizophrenia usually begins to appear between the ages of 16 and 30; it is uncommon to develop schizophrenia after age 45. In addition to visual hallucinations, you may experience auditory hallucinations, in which you hear voices, and paranoia, the conviction that others are conspiring against you. Other symptoms include disorganized thinking, movement disorders, and "flat affect," remaining expressionless while speaking in a monotone. Doctors aren't sure what causes schizophrenia; genetics, environmental factors, and imbalances in brain chemistry are all believed to play a role. Symptoms of schizophrenia may be alleviated with conventional or typical anti-psychotic medications, such as haloperidol and chlorpromazine. Newer, or atypical, anti-psychotics, such as quetiapine or aripiprazole, may also be used. Both types of medication can have side effects, including major weight gain and involuntary muscle movements. Psychosocial treatments, such as self-help groups and cognitive behavioral therapy, may also help to manage schizophrenia.

Exercise Benefits

In a 2010 review of exercise studies by University of Toronto researchers Paul Gorczyniski and Guy Faulkner, the authors reported that regular, moderate aerobic exercise could alleviate feelings of depression, social isolation and low self-esteem in schizophrenics. An increase in motivation, primarily affecting eating habits, hygiene and willingness to exercise, was the most significant benefit. Exercise may also reduce the perception of auditory hallucinations, promote healthier sleep patterns, improve behavior and help maintain healthy weight, particularly important for schizophrenics, who tend to be both more sedentary and more overweight than the general population, with a life expectancy 25 years shorter than those of the same age, race and socioeconomic background. Doctors now recommend the same amount of exercise for schizophrenics as they do for the rest of the general population: moderate exercise 30 minutes a day most days of the week. Recommended types of exercise include cycling, jogging, walking, weight training and yoga.

Hippocampal Enlargement

In a 3-month clinical study conducted by Frank-Gerald Pajonk, M.D., and colleagues and published in 2010 in "Archives of General Psychiatry," researchers found that schizophrenics who cycled three times a week for 30 minutes significantly increased the volume of the hippocampus, a section of the brain important in memory and spatial perception. The hippocampus is often found to be smaller in schizophrenics. Subjects also experienced modest gains in short-term memory.

Barriers to Exercise

According to Gorczynski and Faulkner, regular exercise should be offered as an adjunct treatment for schizophrenia in psychiatric rehabilitation. Offering activities under therapeutic guidance may help combat emotional barriers to exercise, including poor body image and fear of injury. According to "Occupational Therapy and Mental Health," by Jennifer Creek, Lesley Lougher and Hanneke Van Bruggen, these obstacles -- the same as those confronted by the general population -- can be more daunting with schizophrenia. In addition, schizophrenics may suffer from delusions, hallucinations, inappropriate behaviors and emotional responses that could jeopardize unsupervised exercise attempts.

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