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Exercise Intervention for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Posted November 29, 2016

Desi Rotenberg, MS, LAT, ATC

By Desi Rotenberg, MS, LAT, ATC

Since 2000, there is emerging evidence that exercise can and should be used in the therapeutic treatment plan of patients with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Before understanding how therapeutic exercise can be used as a modality for PTSD, we must identify a working definition of the disorder.

The National Center for PTSD defines trauma as “a shocking or anxiety-inducing event that a person witnesses or experiences.”1 It is reported that 6 out of every 10 men and 5 out of every 10 women will experience at least 1 traumatic incident in their life.1 While these traumatic experiences can cause acute forms of PTSD, the effects tend to be short lasting and asymptomatic. However, 8 out of every 100 individuals in the United States will suffer from PTSD at some point in their life.1

PTSD is described as an “anxiety disorder that is triggered by witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event.”2 PTSD is most commonly associated with veterans; however, it can also frequently affect survivors of “violent, personal assaults.” These include rape, mugging, domestic violence, childhood abuse, natural disasters, accidents and life threatening illnesses.

It is important to note the athletic population is not exempt from PTSD. Traumatic events that athletes have suffered either in their past or that are related to an athletic injury can cause substantial hindrances in their return to play. The consequences of traumatic stress can interfere with both an athlete’s rehabilitation as well as their return to play status. Furthermore, sport-related trauma can be a result of over-training or violence within sports.3

The main symptoms of PTSD are generalized anxiety, depression, insomnia, dysphoria and general fatigue. While depression is a common consequence of some of life’s most strenuous occurrences, there are physical and physiological benefits to utilizing exercise as a therapeutic intervention.

There have been several studies that have shown positive outcomes on patients with PTSD, and more data is emerging. In 2009, Cohen and Shamus noted, “Low-to-moderate intensity exercise can elevate mood and reduce anxiety.”2 Additionally, Tsatsoulis and Fountoulakis determined in 2006 that exercise can “act as an overall stress buffer” which in effect can have a positive impact on the symptoms of depression and PTSD.2 Non-randomized controlled studies using physical activity and exercise as an intervention for patients with PTSD showed improvements in body image, prevention of eating disorders, alleviation of anxiety and depressive symptoms and decreased substance abuse.4 Cross-sectional studies have had high self-reports of a correlation between habitual exercise and better mental health.5

In the athletic population, habitual exercise is the activity that is done outside of organized team activities. Other longitudinal surveys have shown that exercise habits early on in an individual’s growth and development, between ages 18-28, can predict freedom from depression later on in their life.6

Farmer et al. surveyed 1,900 adults in 1988 with preexisting depression (causes were variable, some unknown). They determined that individuals who took part in physical exercise ranging from low intensity to rigorous training, successfully made it to the 8-year follow up, and confirmed the researchers’ ability to predict freedom from depression.7 Additionally, the Journal of Clinical Epidemiology published a study in 1994 looking at 1,758 adults with a variety of physical and chronic health problems and self-reported exercise time during a 2-year study period. The majority of these individual reported improvements in well-being, anxiety levels and reported low levels of depression and fatigue.8

There is extensive data on the efficacy of corrective exercise strategies for individuals who are suffering from PTSD as well as any residual behavioral symptoms that are associated with exposure to a traumatic event. While the occurrence of PTSD and injuries from blunt force trauma to the head are only growing in the United States, it will be up to behavioral specialists, occupational therapists, physical therapists and fitness professionals to facilitate an atmosphere that allows individuals to return to their normal activities of daily living.

Resources

1. National Center for PTSD. http://www.ptsd.va.gov. Date Accessed: October 20, 2016.

2. Kim, L. H., Kravitz, L., & Schneider, S. (2012). PTSD & Exercise: What every exercise professional should know. IDEA Fitness J, 9, 20-23.

3. Wenzel, T., & Zhu, L. J. (2013). Posttraumatic Stress in Athletes. Clinical Sports Psychiatry: An International Perspective, 102-114.Lawrence, S., De Silva, M., & Henley, R. (2010). Sports and games for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Cochrane Database Syst Rev, 9.

4.Lawrence, S., De Silva, M., & Henley, R. (2010). Sports and games for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Cochrane Database Syst Rev, 9.

5. Salmon, P. (2001). Effects of physical exercise on anxiety, depression, and sensitivity to stress: a unifying theory. Clinical psychology review, 21(1), 33-61.

6. Krause, N., Goldenhar, L., Liang, J., Jay, G., & Maeda, D. (1993). Stress and exercise among the Japanese elderly. Social science & medicine, 36(11), 1429-1441.

7. Farmer, M. E., Locke, B. Z., Moscicki, E. K., Dannenberg, A. L., Larson, D. B., & Radloff, L. S. (1988). Physical activity and depressive symptoms: the NHANES I Epidemiologic Follow-up Study. American Journal of Epidemiology, 128(6), 1340-1351.

8.Stewart, A. L., Hays, R. D., Wells, K. B., Rogers, W. H., Spritzer, K. L., & Greenfield, S. (1994). Long-term functioning and well-being outcomes associated with physical activity and exercise in patients with chronic conditions in the medical outcomes study. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, 47, 719–730.

About the Author

Desi Rotenberg, originally from Denver, Colorado, graduated with his bachelor's degree in 2012 from the University of Northern Colorado. He has been a BOC Certified Athletic Trainer since 2012 and earned his master's degree in Exercise Physiology from the University of Central Florida in 2014. He currently is a high school teacher, teaching anatomy/physiology and leadership development. Along with being a teacher, he wears many hats, such as basketball coach, curriculum developer and mentor. He has been a contributor to the BOC Blog since the summer of 2015.