Breaking down the barriers to support recovery from PTSD through exercise

It is widely accepted that exercise and physical activity can help reduce the symptoms of mental illness, but people who are living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) face more barriers than others to commencing and maintaining regular exercise.

Providing guidance for people who are experiencing PTSD so they are supported to start and stay engaged with an exercise program over the long-term will help with their recovery.

Up to 10% of emergency service workers experience the symptoms of PTSD. 

Working with EML is Dr Simon Rosenbaum, a Senior Research Fellow at the School of Psychiatry, University of New South Wales and the Black Dog Institute. Together, we aim to increase awareness of the benefits of exercise and how keeping fit can help first responders and emergency service workers manage the symptoms of PTSD, depression and anxiety.

Q: Can exercise really help people who are experiencing PTSD?

A: Including physical activity in the routine care of people who are experiencing PTSD or poor mental health is really important to not only maximise the mental health benefits, but also achieve physical health benefits, and help reduce the risk of chronic illness, which people who have PTSD are at risk of developing.

What we know is that physical activity plays an important role in not only maintaining positive health and wellbeing, but also helping people who may be experiencing psychological distress or symptoms of mental illness. Physical activity and exercise can play a really important role in the overall treatment of someone who has PTSD.

Our research has shown that when physical activity is added to typical psychological treatment it can help to improve a person’s overall recovery, reduce their symptoms; and even deliver benefits such as improved sleep and energy levels and improved physical fitness level at the same time.

Q: What are some of the barriers for emergency service workers in participating in exercise?

A: People who are living with PTSD face even more barriers to commencing an exercise program compared to the general population. Often, we find that people have been sedentary or disengaged from physical activity for a long period of time.

The good thing is that a lot of emergency service workers or defence personnel come from a background of being physically active at some point or another and we can use that to try help people re-engage into an exercise program.

By tapping into what they used to do previously or what they used to enjoy can be useful and positive first step in engaging people in a program moving forward.

Q: Where can people get help for symptoms of PTSD?

A: It’s really important to provide people who have PTSD with enough support and guidance so that they can engage and actually commence an exercise program and maintain it over the long term.

Steps for emergency service workers to get support for PTSD symptoms include:

  1. talking to a health professional about symptoms
  2. discussing it with the EML case manager, psychologist and potentially an exercise physiologist
  3. looking at simple ways to incorporate more activity into day-to-day life.
Adding more activity to each day could be through daily walking or sport participation, and also writing down activity to monitor change and progress over time.

Q: What is the role of exercise in a treatment plan for people who are experiencing PTSD?

A: One of the things to remember is that physical activity does not replace standard care and that includes things like seeing a psychologist and taking any prescribed medication. Exercise is an additional strategy that can be used use over and above medical treatments to improve overall health.

We think of it like another tool in a person’s ‘tool belt’ that can bed used to help manage day-to-day symptoms and also improve overall health and wellbeing. It’s not a cure or a standalone treatment, but it’s something can improve recovery and support day-to-day living as well.

Exercise for mental health goes beyond weight loss which is one of the key things people often associate with exercise. The reason why we promote exercise is for all the other benefits – the mood benefits, better quality sleep, reduced risk of developing chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes – not just the change in body weight.

Q: How important is exercise as a prevention for people working in high stress environments?

A: A lot of the emergency service workers I have worked with have talked about how important exercise is as a coping mechanism and dealing with their stressful jobs.

Some of the exciting aspects revealed by research are the role of exercise as a prevention strategy, and in reducing the risk of things like depression and anxiety. These are two more reasons why people should be prioritising and maintaining physical activity, especially in emergency service roles.

Dr Simon Rosenbaum is a Senior Research Fellow at the School of Psychiatry, University of New South Wales and the Black Dog Institute

Further resources

Black Dog Institute

A not-for-profit which is internationally recognised as a pioneer in the identification, prevention and treatment of mental illnesses, and the promotion of well-being.

Exercise & Sports Science Australia

A professional organisation which is committed to establishing, promoting and defending the career paths of tertiary trained exercise and sports science practitioners.

Translational Journal of the American College of Sport Medicine

Exercise and PTSD Symptoms in Emergency Service and Frontline Medical Workers: A Systemic Review. Associations between physical activity levels and PTSD symptoms.