Despite there being strong evidence of the benefits of exercise for individuals with a mental health condition, until recently, no studies had been conducted that related specifically to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Lifetime prevalence of PTSD within the general population is estimated at between 5% and 10%, with occupation-specific rates among combat veterans and police officers around 17%. The condition is characterised by symptoms such as hyperarousal, re-experiencing and avoidance, with depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol addiction, and sleep disturbance being common comorbidities.
Exercise Physiologist and Research Fellow at the University of New South Wales, Dr Simon Rosenbaum led the first Australian randomised controlled trial relating to exercise and PTSD. In terms of the physical benefits of exercise, he says, “Exercise is the cornerstone of treating and preventing lifestyle-related diseases in the general population, and it absolutely should be in this population too.”
When describing the mental benefits, Rosenbaum explains that it goes a lot further than a reduction in levels of anxiety and symptoms of depression, there’s also a reward in terms of self-esteem. “When people have a mental health condition they are demotivated. Exercise can add structure and routine to someone’s day which they may not have otherwise had.” He adds that exercise can also reduce cravings for cigarettes and alcohol.
Role of an exercise professional
While exercise physiologists and physiotherapists will be involved initially, they will generally refer on to exercise professionals who will then play a far more long-term role. When it comes to implementing an effective exercise program for individuals with PTSD, Rosenbaum says, “the ideal program is one that people are prepared to do and the one that we can motivate people to participate in”.
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