Physical Exercise Keeps the Brain Connected: Biking Increases White Matter Integrity in Patients With Schizophrenia and Healthy Controls

Schizophr Bull. 2015 Jul;41(4):869-78. doi: 10.1093/schbul/sbv033. Epub 2015 Mar 31.


It has been shown that learning a new skill leads to structural changes in the brain. However, it is unclear whether it is the acquisition or continuous practicing of the skill that causes this effect and whether brain connectivity of patients with schizophrenia can benefit from such practice. We examined the effect of 6 months exercise on a stationary bicycle on the brain in patients with schizophrenia and healthy controls. Biking is an endemic skill in the Netherlands and thus offers an ideal situation to disentangle the effects of learning vs practice. The 33 participating patients with schizophrenia and 48 healthy individuals were assigned to either one of two conditions, ie, physical exercise or life-as-usual, balanced for diagnosis. Diffusion tensor imaging brain scans were made prior to and after intervention. We demonstrate that irrespective of diagnosis regular physical exercise of an overlearned skill, such as bicycling, significantly increases the integrity, especially of motor functioning related, white matter fiber tracts whereas life-as-usual leads to a decrease in fiber integrity. Our findings imply that exercise of an overlearned physical skill improves brain connectivity in patients and healthy individuals. This has important implications for understanding the effect of fitness programs on the brain in both healthy subjects and patients with schizophrenia. Moreover, the outcome may even apply to the nonphysical realm.

Keywords: connectivity; diffusion tensor imaging; fractional anisotropy; longitudinal; physical exercise; schizophrenia.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Bicycling / physiology*
  • Diffusion Tensor Imaging
  • Exercise Therapy / methods*
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Schizophrenia / pathology*
  • Schizophrenia / therapy*
  • Treatment Outcome
  • White Matter / anatomy & histology
  • White Matter / pathology*
  • Young Adult