New research suggests that aerobic exercise may be an effective way to reduce some symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The study of 32 individuals with full or sub-syndromal PTSD found that aerobic exercise — in this case, cycling — was associated with a general reduction in symptoms of PTSD and anxiety sensitivity. Individuals with lower levels of cardiorespiratory fitness tended to experience greater improvements during the 2-week aerobic exercise program.
PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Daniel LeBouthillier of the University of Regina. Read his responses below:
PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?
LeBouthillier: There has been more and more research in the past several years about the effects of exercise on anxiety-related disorders, like PTSD. One of the reasons we believe exercise is helpful is that it targets the fear of anxiety-related sensations, called anxiety sensitivity, which underpins disorders like PTSD. I think that research findings on exercise are encouraging, especially because exercise is easily accessible to many people and also has many other health benefits.
What I am particularly interested in is how we can maximize the psychological benefits that individuals with these types of disorders get from exercising. One of the questions we were interested in, then, was to determine whether physical fitness is an important factor to take into consideration when suggesting exercise as a helpful strategy for addressing PTSD symptoms.
What should the average person take away from your study?
What we found is that although exercise appears to be most helpful for people with lower cardiorespiratory fitness, it is still helpful overall in addressing PTSD symptoms regardless of an individual’s fitness levels. That being said, people likely need to continue exercising consistently in order to maintain these benefits in the longer term.
Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?
One limitation of our study is that our aerobic exercise program was relatively short (about two weeks) and as a result there may have been a tendency for symptoms to return after individuals stopped exercising. Some important questions that remain to be addressed include whether we can extend or maintain reductions in symptoms with longer-term exercise and whether other types of exercise (like resistance training) are also effective. As we gather more evidence for the effectiveness of exercise, I also think that we will need to find ways to assist people in incorporating exercise autonomously, which can be difficult even for people without mental illness.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I think it is important for people with PTSD and other anxiety-related disorders to understand that exercise is one of many strategies to address their symptoms. Effective psychotherapies exist to treat these disorders and exercise can be a useful stopgap or complement to these established treatments.