Exercise and Schizophrenia: What’s the Link?

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on May 03, 2022
4 min read

If you have schizophrenia, you’re more likely to have physical health problems that could affect your life expectancy. Because of this, experts continue to study treatment and lifestyle options that may improve your overall well-being. In addition to medications and psychotherapy, research shows that exercise can help prevent and treat schizophrenia.

With schizophrenia, you may gain weight. This could happen because of an unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, or side effects from your antipsychotic drugs. Some medications have a sedative effect, which means that it could make you calm or tired. This can make it harder for you to exercise.

But even without antipsychotics, experts found that if you have schizophrenia, you may be more likely not to get enough physical activity.

If you exercise more, you can control the risk of weight gain with schizophrenia. In addition, more physical activity will lower your risk for heart disease, diabetes, and could lower your blood pressure. This is true even if you don’t achieve a lower body weight from exercise.

Physical activity can also help you avoid osteoporosis, which is a condition that causes your bones to weaken. This condition might be a problem for you if you take antipsychotics.

Many studies look into whether exercise can also help with the side effects of schizophrenia. Some research suggests that physical activity can help with lack of interest, low energy, social withdrawal, and cognitive issues (like poor memory and thinking skills).

Experts found that when people with schizophrenia adopt an exercise program, their self-esteem, social interest, and behavior improve. But the results are different for each person. It’s still unclear how exactly physical activity improves these factors.

Other studies have found that exercise might be able to lower auditory hallucinations or hearing voices. But this might be because exercise distracts you from this symptom.

Research in this area is very limited, so experts continue to look into the link between physical activity and schizophrenia symptoms.

But overall, there is strong evidence that exercise improves your general mental health. More physical activity could:

  • Help you relax
  • Improve sleep
  • Lower stress
  • Help with your overall mood
  • Increase your motivation and self-esteem

Some experts believe this happens because of the chemicals your brain releases while being physically active. Others think that it has to do more with the social setting you place yourself in when you work out.

Exercising at a gym, running, or swimming can all have positive effects. But, too much physical activity could lead to anxiety. It’s important to find a healthy balance.

While physical activity can have benefits, it’s not a replacement for schizophrenia treatment. You should stick to your medical plan and ask your doctor before you begin an exercise program.

If you don’t think your current treatment plan is working, talk to your doctor. It’s unlikely that exercise itself will be able to replace it.

You can explore a few different types of exercise. You might enjoy running, swimming, walking, or weightlifting. It’s important that you find the form of physical activity best suited for you. If you choose something you like, you’re more likely to stick with a long-term routine.

You should aim to get around 150 minutes of moderate to intense exercise each week. If you take antipsychotics, aim for more than this to fight risk factors linked to your medications.

Even if you’re doing activities for other reasons, you still get the benefits of exercise. For example:

  • Cleaning your home can act as a form of cardio
  • Doing yard work can help burn calories
  • Taking the stairs instead of the elevator can help get your heart rate up

Since psychosis is a major threat to your health, it’s important to use medication and therapy to ease symptoms. But experts now know that additional physical illness is also a major risk if you have schizophrenia.

Over 75% of people with schizophrenia will develop another chronic illness. This is one of the reasons why life expectancy with this condition is 10 to 20 years lower than the overall population.

Compared with people without the condition, those with schizophrenia have a higher risk of:

  • Heart and lung issues
  • Lower muscular fitness
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Obesity
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Hyperlipidemia (a condition where your blood has too many fats)
  • Cancer
  • Diabetes

With schizophrenia, you’re also more likely to develop these health issues at a younger age. This happens for several complex reasons. But one main factor has to do with your lifestyle choices. For example, over 70% of people with serious mental illnesses smoke cigarettes. Cigarettes, or the misuse of any drug, can badly affect your health.

Antipsychotic medications for schizophrenia may also have some side effects that affect your health. While these drugs can help with your symptoms, they may make you less active or be more likely to have bad eating habits.

Many general doctors overlook the physical health risks for people with schizophrenia. One study in the U.K. found that only one-third of people with the condition had a doctor who considered these additional health risks.

The good news is there are things you can do to manage your physical health alongside your schizophrenia treatment.