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. Why might people with PTSD be less likely to exercise? There may be several reasons.

Why Do 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, someone with PTSD 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. People with PTSD may also 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 higher risk for experiencing depression. When someone is depressed, they may experience low motivation, low energy, and have a tendency to isolate themselves. Given this, it is possible that symptoms of depression in someone with PTSD might prevent them 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.

The Benefits of Exercise

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, exercise can also have a positive impact on mental health. Regular exercise can reduce 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 someone with PTSD.

The Effect of Regular Exercise on PTSD Symptoms

Several studies have looked at the effect of a regular exercise program on PTSD symptoms. In one study of adolescents with PTSD, it was found that those who took part in an aerobic exercise program for 40 minutes, three times per week, for a total of 8 weeks, experienced a reduction in PTSD symptoms, anxiety, and depression. In another study of adults with PTSD, a 12-session aerobic exercise program was found to also lead to a decrease in PTSD symptoms, depression, and anxiety after the program ended. Finally, researchers have found that engaging in physical exercise can improve problems with pain among veterans with PTSD.

Starting an Exercise Program

If you have PTSD, it may be a good idea to talk with a doctor about starting an exercise program. Before embarking on any exercise program, it is 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 are experiencing.

If you are currently working with a mental health provider, it may also be important to let them know that you are 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 are already doing with your therapist.

If you are interested in learning more about exercise and its benefits, check out the About.com Exercise site.

Sources:

Arnson, Y., Amital, D., Fostick, L., Silberman, A., Polliack, M.L., Zohar, J., Rubinow, A., & Amital, H. (2007). Physical activity protects male patients with post-traumatic stress disorder from developing severe fibromyalgia. Clin Exp Rheumatol, 25, 529-533.

Manger, T.A., & Motta, R.W. (2005). The impact of an exercise program on posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression. Int J Emerg Ment Health, 7, 49-57.

Newman, C.L., & Motta, R.W. (2007). The effects of aerobic exercise on childhood PTSD, anxiety, and depression. Int J Emerg Ment Health, 9, 133-158.

Rosenbaum, S., Nguyen, D., Lenehan, T., Tidemann, A., van der Ploeg, H., & Sherrington, C. (2011). Exercise augmentation compared to usual care for posttraumatic stress disorder: A randomised controlled trial (The REAP Study: Randomised Exercise Augmentation for PTSD). BMC Psychiatry, 11, 115-121.

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