Fred Minnick, a former staff sergeant for the Wisconsin Army National Guard, spent nine years in the military, including a year in Iraq. A photojournalist and public affairs officer, he published Camera Boy: An Army Journalist's War in Iraq in 2009, which chronicled his efforts as a public affairs officer in a war zone. His experience in Iraq was tough. He saw combat, and he watched two of his close friends die. One of the great coping mechanisms, he says, was his ability to exercise, particularly running. Unfortunately, when he returned home, he broke his foot and lost that outlet. While he was laid up, he began to suffer the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.
"I've always thought that one of the big reasons I had some of the problems I had was that I was unable to practice my time-honored coping skills," he says.
He's not alone. A report from the Department of Veterans Affairs in December 2012, listed 239,174 veterans of Operations Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn coded with PTSD and 256,820 as "potential" PTSD. Among the many treatment recommendations, the VA's National Center for PTSD strongly encourages an exercise regimen.
From the standpoint of exercise facilities and recreation centers, this provides an opportunity for proactive efforts to better accommodate PTSD sufferers.
For trainers and workout facilities, they recommend considering "memory deficit and disorganization" issues by offering written instructions and posting them near exercise equipment. They also suggest outlining specific tasks and considering extra training time for those with PTSD.
In addition, the center's guidelines emphasize interaction techniques, such as "show the person a safe place to unwind and decompress ahead of time" and to offer support - particularly in a busy fitness center - and be cognizant of how sudden noises and distractions can impact or upset an individual with PTSD.
Overall, the guidelines emphasize time, patience and the understanding that PTSD can impact a wide variety of emotions and actions. Whatever that workout may be — from weight lifting to swimming and jogging - it encourages fitness center professionals to ensure they're supporting active coping methods and giving individuals the space necessary to complete a workout.
As far as specific workouts are concerned, Minnick is quick to emphasize one form of exercise that he says is the absolute best for PTSD: Yoga, which is on the rise in military circles.
Lucy Cimini founded West Boylston, Mass.-based Yoga Warriors International in 2005 and now offers training classes to yoga instructors across the country to specifically address PTSD issues.
"Back in 2005, I had a Vietnam veteran in my yoga class, and he asked me to come to the local Worcester vet center to do a class," she says. At the time, there was no other program like it, so Cimini began researching PTSD.
The result was the first yoga program focused on military and combat veterans and active-duty personnel. Today, she trains certified yoga teachers and therapists on her yoga methods designed around PTSD.
"If you want to learn what happens to someone with post-traumatic stress, what happens to their brain," she says, the 16-hour training program goes into the specifics. It allows instructors and fitness professionals to take tools back to private veteran sessions and programs to better understand what they're dealing with.
It's often a tough road, though, since PTSD is so unique to the individual.
"Some people have PTSD and their main trigger is lack of validation," Minnick says. "And then there are some people who are tired of everyone talking about PTSD, so there's no real easy answer there."
Minnick notes that the VA has perhaps the best PTSD resources in the world today. "At the end of the day, if you're sick, you have to get yourself in a position to get better," he says. "At some point the individual has to make the determination that they will work on themselves."