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Exercise shown to significantly benefit psychiatric patients


A recent study showed that exercise showed more benefits than pharmaceutical drugs and psychotherapy for patients in psychiatric care facilities. It helped reduce anxiety, depression, anger, and physical agitation while fostering a more integrated sense of self. The study asserts that exercise can reduce the time spent in psychiatric facilities and the dependence on prescription drugs.

Psychiatric in-patient facilities are often crowded, and patients frequently experience distress and discomfort in them. This often serves only to exacerbate their symptoms. As such, psychotropic medications are the first response for patients entering into this system, followed by psychotherapy.

A researcher at the University of Vermont decided to see what would happen if patients were prescribed daily exercise as well. Of the roughly 6,000 psychiatric hospitals in the United States, only a handful offer gym facilities.

Researchers built a gym that could accommodate about 100 patients at the medical center’s in-patient psychiatric hospital.

They then led patients through regular one-hour exercise programs as well as nutritional counseling.

About 95 percent of patients reported the exercise improved their mood, while more than 60 percent said exercising made them either happy or very happy, as opposed to the sadness they originally felt. The majority of patients also reported feeling improved physical well-being.

The researchers stated the exercise had greater benefit for patients in psychotic states for whom psychotherapy can be unproductive.

Other studies have shown positive benefits of regular exercise on more acute psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia. For instance, one study found regular aerobic exercise improved symptoms and lowered depression in about three-quarters of participants with schizophrenia.

Regular exercise is also shown to help people with schizophrenia improve their working memory, attention span, ability to understand social situations, and overall brain function. In general, regular exercise targeted the cognitive deficits that many people with schizophrenia struggle with and improved those.

Aerobic exercise has also been shown to help people with bipolar disorder have less severe manic episodes, sleep better, and reduce symptoms of depression. However, exercise can also exacerbate manic symptoms in some cases.

Numerous studies also show the benefits of exercise for depression and anxiety.

Why exercise improves mental disorder symptoms

Although an anti-inflammatory diet and lifestyle are imperative for managing symptoms associated with mental disorders, exercise must not be overlooked. This is because of the many benefits exercise gives to the brain.

For example, exercise boosts a compound called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF supports the brain’s neurons in their daily functions as well as helping the brain repair damage and stave off neurodegenerative disease.

Exercise also boost endorphins, our self-generated opioid chemicals that produce euphoria and improve mood and well-being.

Both BDNF and endorphins help relieve depression and anxiety, make us feel better about ourselves, and reduce inflammation the brain and body — inflammation in the brain is a common factor underlying many cases of depression.

The best exercise to release BDNF and endorphins is high-intensity interval training (HIIT). HIIT is a form of exercise in which you work out as hard as you can to reach your maximum heart rate, allow yourself to recover, and then do it again. This type of workout can give you great results in durations of under an hour — many HIIT workouts are only 20 or 30 minutes.

Improve your health by lowering brain inflammation

HIIT’s anti-inflammatory benefits also mean you are preventing Alzheimer’s, dementia, Parkinson’s, and other diseases of brain degeneration. Brain inflammation is a very common problem today and found to be a common underlying factor in depression. Poor diets, inflammatory foods, chronic stress, environmental toxins, head injuries, and sedentary lifestyles are some of the factors that can cause brain inflammation.

Common symptoms of brain inflammation include brain fog, fatigue, memory loss, decline in cognition, slow thinking, anxiety, and depression.

Unlike the body’s immune system, the brain’s immune system does not have an off-switch, so brain inflammation can burn through your brain for years or decades. Eventually it can trigger more serious neurological issues.

Ask my office how functional neurology and functional medicine can improve mental and mood disorders and help you lower the risk of neurodegenerative diseases.

Meet the Author

Dr. Matz DC

Dr. Boyle D.A.C.M., LAc., DiplOM. is the founder of the Holistic Wellness Center of the Carolinas where he is the Director of Functional Medicine. He holds a Diplomate in Oriental Medicine and is acupuncture physician and primary care physician in the state of Florida. His post-graduate focus has been in the fields of functional neurology, functional immunology, and functional endocrinology.

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