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Importance of Exercise in Co-Occurring Disorders

Many individuals with dual diagnosis are at a high risk of chronic diseases associated with sedentary behavior and medication side effects: diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.  These diseases also increase a person’s chance of experiencing a heart attack or stroke and developing some forms of cancer.  An essential component of lifestyle modification to prevent these diseases is exercise.

Exercise is especially important for patients with schizophrenia, because they are vulnerable to obesity and the risk of weight gain associated with antipsychotic treatment. The life expectancy of those with schizophrenia can be up to 25 fewer years than others without the disease of the same race, age and socio-economic background, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

While exercise appears to be most useful in alleviating symptoms of anxiety, depression and addiction, studies have shown it can help reduce negative symptoms in people with schizophrenia.  These include decreased motivation, social withdrawal and decreased ability to feel pleasure.  In a 2010 study of patients who participated in regular exercise, participants experienced a reduction in negative symptoms and an increase in motivation in healthy eating, hygiene and physical exercise.  Exercise also helped the subjects feel more socially connected and integrated.

Thirty minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking, five days a week, is sufficient for these health benefits.  These 30 minutes don’t need to be continuous; three 10- to 15-minute walks are as beneficial as one 30-minute walk.  Exercise can include playing sports, lifting weights, running, walking, dancing or canoeing.  Exercising outdoors has been shown to be more effective in increasing self-esteem than hitting the treadmill.

The long-term rewards of regular exercise can include:

  • Improved sleep and return to normal sleep pattern
  • Better physical endurance
  • Stress relief and increased resistance to stress
  • Improvement in mood and general behavior
  • Increased energy and stamina
  • Reduced tiredness that can increase mental alertness
  • Weight reduction
  • Reduced cholesterol and improved cardiovascular fitness

Exercise releases dopamine, the “pleasure chemical,” and reduces stress hormones.  It is a very effective coping mechanism for individuals with addiction, as well as providing a distraction from cravings.  Regular exercise builds up resiliency to stress hormones, making anxiety occur less often.

Start exercising by taking the stairs whenever possible or parking farther away from work or a store.  Simple changes can make a difference in a lifetime of healthy living and overall wellness.

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