Exercise Treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) - An Increasing Trend with Positive Outcomes

The water is clear and cool on Southwest Florida's beaches this time of year!  Get outdoors, walk and take deep breaths to feel even better.  Photo courtesy of Charly Caldwell II

As recent as this past decade, working with athletes with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was not common place.

Up until about 7 years ago I could count the number of athletes coming to me with PTSD on one hand.

However, just as Bob Dylan once said; “For the times, they are a changing”.

As our population ages, we are seeing more survivors from 9-11, the armed forces, mass shootings and even sporting events (Boston marathon) turn to exercise to help manage and provide relief from the symptoms associated with this disorder including:

  • flashbacks,
  • nightmares,
  • isolation,
  • insomnia,
  • feelings of anger,
  • frustration,
  • irritability and
  • memory loss

to name a few.

Constantly gearing up psychologically for fight or flight can be wear on us physically mentally and emotionally. 

Therefore, it behooves us to look at the benefits exercise can offer athletes affected with PTSD.

Despite the vast and constantly growing evidence of the benefits of exercise for individuals with a mental health condition, until recently, very few studies had been conducted that related specifically to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

According to The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), PTSD affects between 5-8% of Americans or roughly 9-15 million Americans annually with women being twice as likely as mean to be affected.

To develop treatment options, researchers like Mathew Fetzner and Gordon Asmundson at the University of Regina are studying physical remedies such as intense exercise to help those suffering from PTSD.

We know that people who exercise regularly are less likely to suffer from anxiety and depression but Fetzner also found that as little as two weeks of stationary biking can be helpful in reducing PTSD symptoms and improving mood.

Further, researchers at Loughborough University have reviewed multiple studies that looked at the impact of sport and physical activity people with PTSD.

Their findings:

Physical activity enhances well-being by reducing symptoms and improving coping strategies. Symptom reduction in these studies seems to occur through a renewed sense of determination and hope, increased quality of life, and the cultivation of positive self-identity.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is characterized by symptoms such as hyperarousal, re-experiencing and avoidance, with depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol addiction, and sleep disturbance being common comorbidities.

This means that while people with the disorder may appear flat and withdrawn initially, they are likely hypersensitive, subject to hyperarousal and hypervigilance meaning they are easily startled, on edge and often looking out for signs of danger.

To state it more simply, if you contend with PTSD, your body is constantly gearing up for fight or flight.

While exercise alone is not a cure for PTSD, it’s valuable in helping to reduce the severity and impact of symptoms, particularly those relating to hyperarousal.

Studies have also shown that individuals with PTSD have twice the risk of cardiometabolic disease (a condition in which developing atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease [narrowing and hardening of the arteries] and diabetes are significantly enhanced because of the presence of insulin resistance and atherogenic dyslipidemia) than those without.

This means high triglycerides, increased LDL (bad cholesterol) and decreased HDL (good cholesterol).

We know exercise is key to treating and preventing lifestyle-related diseases in the general population, and it absolutely should be in this population too.

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Let's go on this journey together and change your life as always, “Practice with Purpose and Live with Passion!”



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