What is PTSD?
PTSD is a mental health problem that develops after exposure to a traumatic event. Perception of the trauma is what determines how the person reacts to it and whether or not they will develop PTSD. Thus, a trauma can be life threatening or perceived as such.
Following the trauma, the person feels unsafe, edgy, experiences intrusive memories and has trouble sleeping. From a mental health professional standpoint, if the symptoms persist for more than 4 weeks, cause you great distress, and interfere with your life and work, you might have PTSD
Thus, PTSD is a dysfunction of the body’s stress-coping system resulting in a cluster of symptoms that include:
· Intrusive memories
· Emotional numbing
· Anxiety and increased arousal
· Insomnia and difficulty with sleep
· Avoidance of things that remind you of the trauma
· Greater negative thoughts than before the trauma
· Altered memories of the event that make the actual event more threatening than it was.
· Reliving the trauma through nightmares, flashbacks, or even triggers (i.e., hearing, smelling or seeing something that reminds you of the trauma).
Aerobic Vs Anaerobic exercises
· Aerobic exercises
Research suggests that aerobic exercise has the greatest boosting effects on mood. When performed on a regular basis, it produces beneficial effects through the release of endorphins which help elevate moods and the lowering of cortisol levels. To enjoy those benefits the exercise does not need to be of high intensity, as even low-intensity aerobic exercises produce similar results.
It is interesting to note that a study found that only low-to-moderate workout resulted in decreased anxiety, while the high-intensity workout led to an increase in anxiety. It was suggested that the highly competitive and demanding nature of the workout could contribute to the increase in anxiety.
Additionally, low-intensity aerobic exercises, such as meditation, yoga, qigong, and tai chi have been found to have positive effects on a person’s psychological well-being. For example, Qigong is an exercise that encompasses coordinating gentle movements and breathing. Tai chi is a similar exercise that includes the element of mental concentration with repetitive movements.
· Anaerobic exercises
Anaerobic exercise occurs when the energy required to produce the activity is provided without the use of inhaled oxygen. This type of exercise is limited to short bursts of vigorous activity, uses oxygen stored in the muscles, and therefore typically lasts less than 1 minute. These typically include weight-lifting, isometrics, interval training, plyometrics and sprints.
They have been found to increase beta-endorphins as a result of the build-up of lactate and lactic acids in the muscles. These endorphins are associated with a higher pain threshold, but they are also linked to increased cortisol release.
The research is inconclusive regarding the beneficial effects of this type of exercise on mental health, but the evidence suggests that it does not have mood-elevating action on the person.
Exercise Regimen for PTSD
An exercise program beneficial for PTSD could include low- to moderate-intensity body-awareness exercises (such as Pilates, yoga, Nia®, therapeutic dance, tai chi or qigong), which can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.
For example, a study found that low-exertion mindful activities like yoga enhanced moods after one single session. In addition, swimming was also able to positively alter mood through the relaxing effects of simply being in the water.
Diaphragmatic (or pranayama) breathing and muscle relaxation exercises have also been found to exert anxiolytic effects and thus should be included in the exercise regimen.
What to Keep in Mind with PTSD
Ø Fatigue is a common barrier to exercise and thus should be taken into consideration. Perhaps including more short breaks between repetitions could be helpful
Ø Repetitions are crucial in order to master any exercise
Ø Be patient and compassionate towards yourself. Do not blame yourself or get angry if your workout was not perfect. Tomorrow is another day.
Ø Be realistic with your goals and set up smaller fitness goals at the beginning,
Ø Communicate with yourself and others about difficulties you might be experiencing. Do not let them become unmanageable.
Cohen, G.E., & Shamus, E. 2009. Depressed, low self-esteem: What can exercise do for you? The Internet Journal of Allied Health Sciences and Practice, 7 (2).
Netz Y, Lidor R. Mood alterations in mindful versus aerobic exercise modes. J Psychol. 2003 Sep;137(5):405-19. doi: 10.1080/00223980309600624. PMID: 14629072.