Exercise has been shown to significantly reduce symptoms of first-episode psychosis in young people, according to a new study at the University of Manchester in the U.K.
“This was only a pilot study, but the improvements, particularly in psychiatric symptoms, were dramatic,” said lead author and doctoral student Joseph Firth. “Personalized exercise at local leisure centers seems to be a cost-effective and successful way to help these young people recover.”
When young people are diagnosed with psychosis, the long-term prospects are typically poor with high rates of relapse, unemployment, and premature death. Many patients also experience rapid, unwanted weight gain due to the antipsychotics they are prescribed.
Although exercise has been found to be an effective treatment for people with long-term schizophrenia, there have been no studies showing its effects on psychiatric symptoms in young adults with early psychosis, until now.
For the study, the researchers recruited 31 people ages 18-35 who had been referred to local mental health centers for treatment. With the participants help, the researchers designed personalized exercise routines which were carried out under supervision for 10 weeks at local recreation centers.
“Establishing an exercise regime for people with psychosis is likely to be much more effective when they are younger, and in the earliest stages of treatment. Getting people into a routine early on also helps set habits for life, which can make a huge difference to their long-term physical and mental health,” Firth said.
The study participants actually exceeded the target amounts of exercise, achieving 107 minutes of vigorous exercise training each week for 10-weeks. This compares favorably with exercise programs in healthy populations as well as in schizophrenia.
“Personalizing exercise training to the activities which patients find most motivating helps them stick to their program,” said Firth.
At the end of the 10-week period, the participants completed a variety of standardized mental and physical health tests. The researchers compared their results to those of a control group of seven people being treated by mental health services without an exercise program.
The findings showed that the exercise group experienced a 27 percent reduction in psychiatric symptoms on the standardized tests, much better than the control group. Their brain function also improved, and they achieved a slight reduction in body weight — going against expected weight gain from normal treatment.
“By reaching people early on, exercise can provide a healthy and empowering add-on treatment for young people with psychosis. This could massively improve their social functioning and mental health, hopefully preventing long-term disability from ever arising,” Firth said.
The study is published in the journal Early Intervention in Psychiatry.