Med thumb spin class
We get it. Working out is necessary and we all need to get an hour of exercise per day, lest we become unattractive, exhausted weaklings. But the benefits of hitting the barbells and treadmill go beyond physical fitness: More and more research shows that exercise is as much of a boon to our brains as to our bodies. Recent findings, for example, depict daily cardio as a natural remedy for ADHD and anxiety. And two new studies suggest that regular workouts can facilitate emotional regulation, both for people without any mental disorder and those diagnosed with schizophrenia.
The first study, published in the journal Cognition and Emotion, explored how exercise affected people's emotional responses to watching a sad movie clip. For the experiment, 80 participants filled out mood assessments before splitting into two groups. One group jogged for 30 minutes and the other didn't exercise at all. Then, everyone watched a sad scene from the 1979 Ricky Schroeder sobfest, "The Champ," which has been called "the saddest movie in the world" and is frequently used in psych experiments to make participants weepy. (If academics are looking to update their film choice, which they should, perhaps they should stream a little 2008 tearjerker called "Marley and Me.") After "Champ," participants filled out more questionnaires designed to gauge their emotional regulation capabilities. 

Researchers compared their performance on cognitive tests both before and after the 10-week experiment and found that the exercisers gain an edge in controlling their emotions in social situations.

Overall, members of the jogging group reported feeling less despondent by the end of the study, compared to those who hadn't worked up a sweat. Study authors, per the press release, determined that "participants who exercised were better able to overcome or compensate for initial difficulties drawing on regulatory strategies and with goal-directed cognition and behavior in comparison to non-exercisers."

The schizophrenia findings come from a pilot study published in the straightforwardly titled Schizophrenia Bulletin. Researchers affiliated with the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior explored exercise as a means of managing various cognitive deficits (common among schizophrenia patients) related to memory, problem-solving skills and emotional intelligence.

The study consisted of two experiments, one of which specifically measured mood regulation. All participants — 16 young adults who'd recently had their first schizophrenic episodes — went through a series of neurocognitive training courses, each of which focused on a different cognitive skill. Seven participants additionally did 150 minutes of monitored aerobic exercise each week. Researchers compared their performance on cognitive tests both before and after the 10-week experiment and found that the exercisers gained an edge in controlling their emotions in social situations. According to the study press release, "the participants who exercised cut the level of such problems in half."

But the combination of cognitive training and vigorous exercise, researchers believe, helps re-stock the brain's depleted supply of BDNF.

Researchers attribute improved performance on all cognitive skills to an increase in a brain protein called BDNF, which facilitates neural growth in the hippocampus, an area of the brain critical to memory. Schizophrenia, which affects roughly one percent of the general population, typically rears its head during late adolescence and early adulthood. The mental disorder is characterized by a disconnect with reality that manifests in hallucinations (perceptions of non-existent sights and sounds) and delusions (paranoid, irrational beliefs). Less visible symptoms, namely cognitive deficits, however, play a large role in functioning impairments that leave so many schizophrenia sufferers disabled and out of work. 

As we reported earlier this year, recent, game-changing research explains the mental disorder as the product of an "over-pruned brain."

Basically, adolescence is a critical period of cognitive development, during which time the brain sheds unused or weak neural connections, called synapses. By cleaning shop, the teen brain frees up space and resources to support connections that are necessary for grown-up mental processes, such as risk-assessment. This process is called synaptic pruning, and it appears to go into overdrive in the brains of schizophrenia patients. That all-important brain protein, BDNF, is one casualty of hyper-pruning. But the combination of cognitive training and vigorous exercise, researchers believe, helps re-stock the brain's depleted supply.

It's not clear that exercise bolsters emotional regulation in the same manner for non-schizophrenics. More research on the relationship between lifestyle decisions and brain connections, however, will help us understand and support brains bearing all sorts of differences and distinctions.