Exercise. This simple word conjures images of extremely fit, athletic young people in very tight-fitting clothing, and this is unfortunately the image that can stop people who are dealing with mental health issues from going to the gym. Thankfully, there is a reliable method that will keep those of us working through PTSD to use exercise on a regular basis because in a word, exercise “works.” We just have to know how to work it.

Fitness marketing campaigns generally equate fitness with the iconic physique. Unfortunately, that physical image is not available to everyone. Genetic body types dictate more of our potential physicality than some of us would like to admit. I am not implying that only a select few can build muscle, lose body fat, and look better. Nor am I saying that people who look the part don’t work hard for it; to achieve the iconic look a person has to work very hard, regardless of genetics. I am saying that going for the iconic physique as a primary result expectation is doomed to failure for most of us, and unfortunately this is the major selling point for the fitness industry.

The key to exercise motivation lies in understanding “result expectations.” The result expectation is the reason why a person engages in an exercise program in the first place. If I’m a competitive bodybuilder, my result expectation from exercise is to increase muscle mass and reduce excess body fat. If I’m a golfer, my result expectations from exercise involve greater rotational flexibility throughout my core and shoulders. The list goes on, with each different result expectation, or reason to exercise, having its own exercise prescription. Enhanced mental health is a very powerful and realistic result expectation from exercise, and there are specific ways to structure the exercise program for mental health.

A proper prescription of “health and fitness training and discipline” (exercise) for mental health will alleviate the negative symptoms of PTSD like depression, anxiety, panic, and disassociation. Additionally, the neurochemical shift achieved through physical exercise (increase in dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine) enhances critical cognitive functions like concentration, problem-solving skills, interpersonal communication, and creativity. These cognitive factors allow a person to more fully engage in progressive, healing PTSD treatment protocol like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, EMDR, etc. So, with proper exercise we have the double effect of reducing psychic pain and discomfort, while at the same time fueling our ability to engage in therapy and truly get well.

There is not enough room in this short article to fully outline how to structure exercise for mental health, and this concept and implementation may need further clarification. Please contact us with any questions or concerns about the content of this article. We would love to help you get locked into using exercise as a regular part of your efforts to get well and stay well!

– Dan Mitchell
dan@bodytomind.rehab