The Science

What is PTSD and how does physical activity help?


What is PTSD?

PTSD stands for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and regardless of what you heard on the news, it doesn’t mean that everyone with PTSD has just returned from war. Though many veterans suffer from PTSD it can be caused by any traumatic event experienced by any individual. Operation RSF works with both veterans and civilians who desire to control their symptoms of PTSD through physical activity and exercise.


How is PTSD diagnosed?

PTSD can be diagnosed by a licensed clinical psychologist or psychiatrist who bases their diagnosis on the DSM-V definition of PTSD. If you are experiencing some of the symptoms below after experiencing a traumatic event, please reach out to a psychologist or psychiatrist to open up lines of communication.

The current definition, according to the DSM-V, for what constitutes PTSD includes:

  • Re-experiencing the traumatic event:

    • Having flashbacks​

    • Nightmares

    • Intense and prolonged psychological distress

  • Avoidance

    • Due to experiencing distressing memories, thoughts, feelings, and reminders of the traumatic event.

  • Negative Thoughts & Mood​

    • Persistent and distorted sense of blame of self or others​

    • Estrangement from others

    • Diminished interest in activities

    • Inability to remember key aspects of the event

  • Arousal issues​

    • Aggressive, reckless, self-destructive behavior.​

    • Sleep disturbance.

    • Hyper-vigilance

PTSD, Depression, and Anxiety disorders are very similar and have been shown to have positive benefits related to controlling and decreasing the severity of symptoms through the introduction of physical activity. Though exercise has been shown to provide multiple benefits relating to better sleep quality, increased intrinsic effects, reduced anxiety, increase in mood, decreased stress, increased sense of well-being, increased independence, increased sense of community, decreased symptoms of depression, and many more benefits, there is also evidence that coupling exercise with therapy (e.g. CBT, ACT, exposure therapy, etc.) shows the best overall results. We recommend that individuals wishing to take part in one of the Challenges who are already involved in a therapeutic approach should continue their therapy with the physical exercise as a supplement to their current approach.

man sitting looking anxious

Why prescribe physical activity and exercise to treat PTSD?

There are a number of different treatment options that range from services from professionals to pharmaceuticals. If you are currently involved in a therapy that is helping you then we recommend using physical activity and exercise as a supplement, but there are also a number of reasons to try using physical activity and exercise as a treatment method. Budde & Wegner (2018) list five reasons to look at exercise for mental health.

  1. The benefits of physical activity on mental health is very well researched by a number of peer-reviewed studies.
  2. Physical activity is cost-effective. Using bodyweight training or going for runs or hikes, you can get moving with very little investment beyond shoes. Even gym memberships, when compared to the cost of psychotherapies or pharmaceutical approaches can be considered cost-effective.
  3. When compared to pharmaceutical approaches, physical activity is considered to have minimal aversive side-effects.
  4. Physical activity has the potential to improve physical health and overall well-being while also positively impacting your mental health.
  5. Physical activity and exercise can be indefinitely sustained while psychotherapies and even pharmaceutical approaches often have an end-point. Life long physical activity can also benefit independence later in life.
  6. Many other therapeutic approaches can be expensive or in short supply in your direct area.
  7. Being physically active is FUN!

How does exercise help?

Research has shown that the long-term benefits of an aerobic-based exercise routine, of at least 45 minutes a day, 3 days a week at low to moderate intensity, are experienced as soon as 3.5 weeks to 4 weeks. High-intensity bouts can offer immediate benefits relating to anxiety and depression but do not have the same long-term effect as low to moderate-intensity exercise. This means that though there are some benefits to single bouts of exercise, the greatest benefit in long-term relief of symptoms comes from developing long-lasting habits.​

Additional approaches that have showed positive benefits include mind-body approaches such as diaphragmatic breathing/resonant breathing, Tai-Chi, and Yoga, adventure training which offers more social, self-acceptance, and sense of achievement benefits, and of course the cognitive therapeutic methods, as mentioned earlier, which can help challenge the thoughts and perceptions which are influencing behaviors. Sport psychology has also shown benefits by increasing intrinsic motivation through goal-setting, self-talk, routine building, and reframing negative thoughts and feelings resulting in a greater sense of control.​

There have been some studies that utilized 4-6 week follow-ups after ceasing the physical activity intervention that has found the benefits of the symptoms can begin to decrease and a return to the level pre-intervention. This is why we hope the 4-Week Challenge is only a stepping stone for a lifelong commitment towards physical and mental health through physical activity.

If you are interested in beginning your journey of using physical activity to take control of PTSD symptoms, try starting with a 4-week challenge or get connecting with a partnering gym/coach.

If you are interested in getting in contact to know more about using physical activity for better mental health, please fill out the form below.

Get in Touch for Info on How to Get Started


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).

Benson, M. Hoffman, B. M., Babyak, M. A., Craighead, W. E., Sherwood, A., Doraiswamy, P. M., Coons, M. J., & Blumenthal, J. A. (2010). Exercise and Pharmacotherapy in Patients with Major Depression: One-Year Follow-up of the SMILE study. Psychosomatic Medicine, 73, 1-7. doi:10.1097/PSY.0b013e31820433a5

Budde, H. & Wegner, M. (Eds.) (2018). The exercise effect on mental health neurobiological mechanisms. New York, NY: Routledge.

Fetzner, M. G., & Asmundson, G. J. (2014). Aerobic Exercise Reduces Symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, 44(4), 301-313. doi:10.1080/16506073.2014.916745

Lebouthillier, D. M., & Asmundson, G. J. (2015). A Single Bout of Aerobic Exercise Reduces Anxiety Sensitivity But Not Intolerance of Uncertainty or Distress Tolerance: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, 44(4), 252-263. doi:10.1080/16506073.2015.1028094

Otter, L., & Currie, J. (2004). A long time getting home: Vietnam veterans’ experiences in a community exercise rehabilitation program. Disability and Rehabilitation, 26, 27-34.

Smits, J. A., Berry, A. C., Rosenfield, D., Powers, M. B., Behar, E., & Otto, M. W. (2008). Reducing anxiety sensitivity with exercise. Depression and Anxiety, 25(8), 689-699. doi:10.1002/da.20411