How Exercise Can Accelerate PTSD Recovery

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Photos courtesy of Matrix Fitness

Posttraumatic stress disorder affects one in 30 civilians and up to 10 times as many veterans. This condition can occur when distressing events cause a powerful stress response in the body.

We may fixate on traumatic experiences when the brain is unable to process fear or inhibits emotional responses. In PTSD, this memory is relived frequently, along with the full spectrum of emotions that occur when we are stricken with fear.

The most common PTSD complaints are intrusive memories that disturb sleep and sensitivity to cues that cause panic. These disturbing memories interrupt everyday life and adversely impact mental health. Symptoms can worsen over time as PTSD-sufferers withdraw from others and avoid leaving the house. This often leads to social isolation and substance-use disorders.

Vulnerability factors

Studies in military personnel have helped us identify what makes a person susceptible to developing PTSD. Researchers can compare the differences among those who develop PTSD symptoms, and those who were resilient to long-lasting effects of the trauma.

The size and structure of some brain regions play a role in susceptibility. Interestingly, the brain regions most sensitive to the benefits of exercise are involved, including those that help us form memories and deal with stress.

On average, higher PTSD risk occurs in those with a smaller amount of brain tissue devoted to forming memories and managing emotions. This may seem counterintuitive, but when these regions are smaller or have weaker connections, the brain forms stronger fear-based memories.

Brain regions involved in memory and stress can grow and become better connected when we embrace regular exercise. This offers some protection against developing PTSD. In those who have already been diagnosed with PTSD, regular exercise eases the severity of the symptoms.

Fitness reduces PTSD risk

Although an avid exerciser remains vulnerable to PTSD, they have a lower risk than sedentary individuals. This idea has been confirmed in sets of twins who endured trauma in the Vietnam War. Twins are ideal to study because they have very similar genetics and upbringings, so we can see how lifestyle factors influence their outcomes.

The Vietnam studies reveal that when both twins were involved in heavy combat, the twin who had a smaller memory center of the brain was more likely to develop PTSD. This brain region grows in response to exercise, so it underscores the importance of staying active throughout our lives.

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Staying active after PTSD

PTSD makes it very difficult to move on from trauma, but exercise can help. Nearly every PTSD symptom is eased by regular exercise, including a tendency to self-isolate.

Those with PTSD usually withdraw from familiar patterns and spend more time at home. As a result, their daily step counts usually decline, along with their overall strength and fitness. Research shows that even those who were highly active before the trauma tend to regress toward a sedentary lifestyle due to the difficulties associated with PTSD symptoms.

Many of the long-term health consequences of PTSD reflect a lack of exercise. For instance, individuals with PTSD are more likely to be obese, as well as have type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

New connections

Working out primes the brain for creating new connections. This helps PTSD-sufferers develop new thinking patterns and learn to reframe how they view their past trauma. Of course, exercise also benefits mood, supporting a calmer and more positive mindset.

Heightened arousal is common among those with PTSD, and it can escalate to panic and fear. Exercise also causes arousal to increase, but when we work out, we learn to associate arousal with the healthy challenge of exercise, rather than an impending flashback. By connecting a rising heart rate and adrenaline to a workout, exercise helps to break the cycle of trauma in PTSD. And unlike substance use or social isolation, it gives us a positive outlet for when we feel overwhelmed.

In addition to creating new connections in the brain, exercise can enhance social connections and a sense of belonging. A major obstacle for those with PTSD is feeling alienated by their difficult experience, but exercise reduces the number and intensity of flashbacks and nightmares. This can help develop confidence to re-engage with others, and clubs offer a place where new social connections are available, but not required. While fitness facilities may not be appropriate for all PTSD sufferers, they offer a healthy outlet for those with low levels of symptom severity.

Attracting and helping members

It is clear that the benefits of exercise extend beyond fitness and strength, so fitness facilities should attract members by emphasizing the benefits to emotional regulation. Feeling better, achieving a calmer mindset, enjoying the relaxation benefits that come after the workout — all of these results are appealing to those with unresolved trauma.

Messages about how exercise makes you feel can attract members who are seeking options to help them cope with PTSD symptoms. And gyms can reach more individuals in need by reaching out to local trauma counselors, psychologists and sleep clinics in their area. Make sure they know about your facility and your dedication to improving your community’s health. Several studies show that combination treatments involving therapy and regular exercise result in greater improvement in PTSD symptoms compared to therapy alone.

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