The study from University of Manchester discovered that, when teamed with medication, 12 weeks of aerobic exercise training can improve patients’ brain functioning than drugs alone.
Researcher Joseph Firth said: “These findings present the first large-scale evidence supporting the use of physical exercise to treat the neurocognitive deficits associated with schizophrenia.”
A spokesperson from charity Rethink Mental Illness branded the findings as “encouraging”.
Researchers combined data from 10 independent clinical trials with a total of 385 patients with schizophrenia.
Schizophrenia is often typified by hallucinations and delusions, which are usually treatable with medication. However, most patients are also troubled with pervasive ‘cognitive deficits’ including poor memory, impaired information processing and loss of concentration.
The study, published in Schizophrenia Bulletin, showed that around 12 weeks of aerobic exercise training can significantly improve patients’ brain functioning.
It found that patients who were treated with aerobic exercise programs, such as treadmills and exercise bikes, in combination with their medication, experienced improved overall brain functioning more than those treated with medications alone.
The areas which were most improved by exercising were patients’ ability to understand social situations, their attention spans and their ‘working memory’ – or how much information they can hold in their mind at one time.
There was also evidence that programs which used greater amounts of exercise, and those which were most successful for improving fitness, had the greatest effects on cognitive functioning.
Researcher Joseph Firth said: “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. 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.”
He added: “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.”
In response to the report, Nia Charpentier, media manager at Rethink Mental Illness, told The Huffington Post UK: “More research into effective treatments for schizophrenia is much needed and overdue.
“The link between exercise and good mental health is well known, and so it is encouraging to see such positive effects in these findings.”
She adds: “Schizophrenia is a complex illness and while exercise will go some way towards improving people’s quality of life, those with the illness will likely need to a variety of treatment options to decide what is right for them.
“For some this might be a combination of exercise, psychological therapy and medication, as well as other factors like a good support network of family and friends.
“The important thing is that people get the support they need, when they need it, and can lead the life they want to lead.”