Could aerobic exercise be the solution to some of our mental disorders? One recent study may shine light on a new way of helping patients with schizophrenia through a combination of computer-aided learning and aerobic exercise.

Conducted by UCLA, the study is in line with all previous research which has found that physical exercise in itself is beneficial to counter some of the cognition and memory-related impairment caused by mental disorders. But the UCLA team went a step further to prove that aerobic exercises in particular have a greater effect in negating these symptoms.

We have also seen studies in the past that link physical exercise such as cycling or going to the gym as a counter to depression and anxiety, but the UCLA study specifically looked at aerobic exercises such as running, jogging, walking, hiking and how it affects patients. It went about concluding that in two parts.

In the first part, 9 young adults who had recently had their first schizophrenic episode went through a computerized course built to improve memory skills, build “neurocognitive training for perception, and social cognitive training for emotional intelligence,” according to this AFP report. Another 7 subjects in the same age group and with similar history of mental disorders also took the same computerized course, but were also mandated 150 minutes a week of aerobic exercise. The first group of 9 showed no change in cognitive performance, while the second group showed “significant cognitive improvements”.

In the second part, 32 similar participants went through the same computerized course as the earlier groups, but half of these also took a vigorous exercise course. These 16 showed three times improvement on a series of cognitive tests than the half that only finished the computerized course.

The team attributed this improvement to a brain protein called brain-derived neurotrophic growth factor (BDNF), which is discharged when performing aerobic exercises. It’s been known to foster growth of new neurons, as well as facilitate new connections between neurons in the hippocampus, which is part of the brain responsible for learning and long-term memory functions.

The tests measured how quickly the individual could finish a complicated dot-to-dot drawing, and the average completion time for those who exercised improved from 37 to 25 seconds. People of the same age without schizophrenia complete the assignment in an average 22 seconds.

“It’s looking like exercising the body along with the mind has the potential to alter the course of schizophrenia, especially if the treatment is applied early in the disorder,” said Joe Ventura, a senior research psychologist at the Semel Institute.

“Our hope is to prevent the chronic disability that is so common in schizophrenia from ever occurring, and to return individuals with schizophrenia to regular employment, regular schooling and normal friendship patterns, and to have them resume as much of a full life as possible,” Keith Nuechterlein, a professor at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, said in a report published in Science Daily.

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