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Regular exercise may alleviate symptoms of schizophrenia

by Amber Lindke
May 20, 2010

 Risk factors of schizophrenia:

1. Age 

Although schizophrenia can occur at any age, it is likely to develop between adolescence and young adulthood. The risk of schizophrenia decreases with age, but it has the tendency to peak at around 45 years old and again in people who are in their 60s (typically women).

2. Gender

Schizophrenia afflicts both men and women. Men usually develop the illness between the ages of 15-24 and the symptoms are commonly more severe in men. The onset in women is typically later, between the ages of 25-34, and the symptoms tend to be less acute.

3. Intelligence

People of all intelligence levels can be affected by schizophrenia, but a decline in IQ scores during childhood may be an indication of potential psychotic symptoms in adults.

4. Cultural and geographic

The illness affects all cultural and geographic groups, but the course of the disease tends to be more severe in developed countries.

5. Socioeconomic

Schizophrenia occurs twice as often in unmarried and divorced people as in married or widowed individuals. Also, people with the illness are eight times more likely to be in the lowest economic groups.

6. Famine and malnutrition

Prenatal malnutrition may be a factor in the development of schizophrenia. A study conducted in 2005 found that people born during a famine were twice as likely to develop the illness compared with those who had access to an adequate food supply.


A regular exercise regimen is recommended for people with schizophrenia to help reduce the negative symptoms of the illness, in addition to decreasing the risk of other illnesses that may result from inactivity.

“Exercise transcends some of the traditionally held beliefs that it only has physical effects. It provides physical, mental and social well-being,” said Paul Gorczynski from the University of Toronto.

Gorczynski is the co-author of the review recently published in The Cochrane Library, a collection of databases in medicine and other health care specialties. The review analyzed three studies that examined how physical exercise affected patients with schizophrenia. Researchers studied the effects of exercise programs lasting 12 to 16 weeks, including activities such as jogging, yoga and strength training.

“Schizophrenia is one of the most chronic and potentially disabling illnesses in psychiatry,” said Dr. John Csernansky, psychiatrist and chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

Schizophrenia, a psychotic disorder, affects approximately 2.5 million people in the United States. Although schizophrenia can be controlled with medication and psychological and social treatments, other problems may occur, such as weight gain, a side effect from medicine that can increase the risk for other chronic illnesses for those with the condition.

Overall, patients who participated in regular physical exercise in the studies experienced a reduction in the negative symptoms of the illness, Gorczynski said. Specifically, symptoms of depression, low self-esteem and social withdrawal were alleviated.

An increase in motivation was the most significant influence that exercise had on the negative symptoms of schizophrenia patients in the studies. Some subjects in the studies experienced an increase in motivation in healthy eating, hygiene and physical exercise.

Exercise also allowed the subjects to feel more socially connected with others and perceive themselves as being more socially integrated.

The negative symptoms of schizophrenia include a loss or reduction in the ability to make plans, express emotion and find pleasure in life. These symptoms may be mistaken for laziness or depression.

Schizophrenia patients are encouraged to participate in a regular exercise routine since people who have serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, are more likely to be sedentary than the general population.

Additionally, medications commonly used to treat schizophrenia, such as antipsychotics, have a tendency to promote significant weight gain, Csernansky said. “When they gain weight, they become even more sedentary, and it turns into a vicious cycle.”

The life expectancy for people with schizophrenia can be up to 25 years less compared with others without the disease of the same race, age and socio-economic background, Csernansky said.

This decreased life expectancy is not due to schizophrenia, he said. However, it is due to the chronic illnesses that result from living a sedentary lifestyle and being overweight.

The results of the studies indicate that there is a need for clinicians to, “Consider the benefits [of exercise] among more traditional forms of therapy,” Gorczynski said.

In an effort to prevent weight gain and an inactive lifestyle in patients with schizophrenia, many rehabilitation centers incorporate exercise into their treatment programs, Csernansky said.