The Benefits of Exercise for People With PTSD

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Low rates of exercise among people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may explain why many people with PTSD have been found to be at high risk for a number of physical health problems, such as obesity, heart disease, pain, and diabetes. There may be several reasons why people with PTSD are less likely to exercise.

Why People With PTSD Exercise Less

First, exercise can increase bodily arousal. Your heart might race. You may experience shortness of breath. Although most people don't think twice about these symptoms, if you have PTSD, you may be particularly hesitant to experience this arousal.

Many people with PTSD fear bodily symptoms that are associated with anxiety, such as increased heart rate and shortness of breath.

They also may fear that bodily arousal from exercise might cause their hyperarousal symptoms to worsen.

As a result, they may try to avoid exercise or any other activity that increases bodily arousal.

In addition, PTSD is associated with a higher risk of experiencing depression. When you're depressed, you may experience low motivation, low energy, and have a tendency to isolate yourself. Given this, it's possible that if you have symptoms of depression along with your PTSD, this might prevent you from exercising.

Finally, people with PTSD engage in more unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking and alcohol use. These behaviors may make it more difficult for someone with PTSD to start an exercise program.

Exercise Benefits With PTSD

Whether or not you have PTSD, regular exercise has a number of benefits. It can contribute to many positive physical health outcomes, such as improved cardiovascular health, weight loss, and greater flexibility and mobility. In addition to these physical health outcomes, regular exercise can also have a positive impact on your mental health by reducing anxiety and depression. Given the benefits of exercise, as well as the numerous mental and physical health problems experienced by people with PTSD, a regular exercise regimen may have a number of advantages for you if you have PTSD.

The Effect of Regular Exercise on Symptoms

Several studies have looked at the effect of a regular exercise program on PTSD symptoms. In one study of adults with PTSD, a 12-week exercise program that included three 30-minute resistance training sessions a week, as well as walking, was found to lead to a significant decrease in PTSD symptoms, depression, and better sleep quality after the program ended.

A review of four randomized controlled trials (RCTs) on the effect of regular exercise on PTSD also found that physical activity significantly reduced depressive and PTSD symptoms. It suggested that more studies should be done on this relationship and concluded that including physical activity in the treatment of PTSD appears to be helpful.

Starting an Exercise Program

Before embarking on any exercise program, it's important to first check with your doctor to make sure that you do it safely. Your doctor may also be able to help you identify the best exercises given your goals, age, weight, or other physical health problems that you're experiencing.

If you're currently working with a mental health provider, it may also be important to let him or her know that you're interested in starting an exercise program. Exercise can be an excellent form of behavioral activation, and your exercise goals may be able to be incorporated into the work that you're already doing with your therapist.

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  • Rosenbaum S,Sherrington C,Tiedemann A.Exercise Augmentation Compared to Usual Care for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: a Randomized Controlled Trial. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica. May2015;131(5):350-9. doi: 10.1111/acps.12371.
  • Rosenbaum S, Vancampfort D, Steel Z, Newby J, Ward PB, Stubbs BD.Physical Activity in the Treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: a Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.Psychiatry Research.December 15, 2015;230(2):130-136.doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2015.10.017.

By Matthew Tull, PhD
Matthew Tull, PhD is a professor of psychology at the University of Toledo, specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder.