File image of woman with psychotic illness
Cognitive deficits form part of schizophrenia symptoms Istock

Exercise may alleviate some of schizophrenia's worst symptoms, scientists have said. Signs of marked cognitive impairment in particular appear effectively reduced by physical exercise interventions.

The two symptoms more often associated with schizophrenia are hallucinations and delusions, which are both usually treatable with medication. It had been thought that only elderly deteriorated patients additionally suffered from cognitive problems, but over the past three decades, it has become evident that they are in fact pervasive among patients and may even pre-date the illness.

These cognitive deficits span several domains, including attention, working memory, verbal learning and memory, as well as executive functions.

The problem is that treatment options are limited. "Cognitive deficits are one aspect of schizophrenia which is particularly problematic. They hinder recovery and impact negatively upon people's ability to function in work and social situations," says study author Joe Firth, from the University of Manchester.

"Furthermore, current medications for schizophrenia do not treat the cognitive deficits of the disorder. We are searching for new ways to treat these aspects of the illness, and now research is increasingly suggesting that physical exercise can provide a solution."

Firth's own research, published in leading journal Schizophrenia Bulletin, reviews past scientific literature in order to assess the link between schizophrenia and sports. The scientists wanted to understand what benefits, if any, schizophrenia sufferers can get from exercising.

Better cognition

The scientists identified ten eligible trials and analysed the cognitive outcome data for 385 adults diagnosed with schizophrenia. Seven of these studies included controls, with individuals only given medication, while the other three also included aerobic exercise programmes as part of the medical routine.

sports and schizophrenia
Physical exercise interventions could help people with schizophrenia Istock

Combining the results from the different trials, the researchers discovered that people enrolled in the exercise programmes improved their overall brain functioning to a greater extent than those treated with medication alone. This trend widened further when the exercise sessions were supervised by a physical activity professional.

Differences were also observed for different areas of cognitive function. Exercise positively impacted the cognitive domains of working memory (how much information people can hold in mind at one time), social cognition (the ability to read social situations) and attention. In contrast, the impact upon processing speed, verbal memory, visual memory and reasoning and problem solving were not significant.

"These findings present the first large-scale evidence supporting the use of physical exercise to treat the neurocognitive deficits associated with schizophrenia.Using exercise from the earliest stages of the illness could reduce the likelihood of long-term disability, and facilitate full, functional recovery for patients," Firth concludes.