Exercise to Support Trauma Healing

They say you can’t run away from your problems. That’s certainly true when it comes to post-traumatic stress: although pushing the memories, thoughts, and feelings aside can provide some quick relief, doing so can also lead to persistent and even worsening symptoms. Even so, literally running (or walking, dancing, swimming, etc.) can actually be quite beneficial in the journey toward healing.

Experiencing one or many traumatic event(s) can lead to anxiety, depression, short temper, intrusive thoughts, sleep disturbance, and other symptoms. Research has shown that regular exercise can decrease depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance, and other symptoms of postraumatic stress, while improving quality of life (Babson et al, 2015; Goldstein et al, 2018; Rosenbaum et al, 1985; Ward & Stubbs, 2017). Many types of movement help people with PTSD gain coping skills, participate more fully in life, achieve better quality of life, and find deeper determination to continue healing and living (Caddick & Smith, 2014).

The trauma treatments of choice are trauma-focused therapy methods such as EMDR, PC, and PE; and exercise has not been proposed as a competitor. However, trauma-focused therapy plus as few as three half-hour exercise sessions per week, plus some walking, has been found to lead to greater symptom reduction than trauma-focused therapy alone (Rosenbaum et al, 2015). Many types of exercise, including sports, aerobic movement, resistance training, yoga, and dance, have been found to be effective in numerous cases, in supplementing treatment as well as maintaining and/or extending the benefits of the primary treatment (Levine & Land, 2015; Ley, Barrio, & Koch, 2017; Rosenbaum et al, 2015; West, Liang, & Spinazzola, 2017).

So while you may not be able to run away from your problems, running – or walking, dancing, biking, swimming, etc. – can help you to face and overcome your problems.


Babson, K. A., Heinz, A. J., Ramirez, G., Puckett, M., Irons, J. G., Bonn-Miller, M. O., & Woodward, S. H. (2015). The interactive role of exercise and sleep on veteran recovery from symptoms of PTSD. Mental Health and Physical Activity, 8, 15-20. Http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.mhpa.2014.12.002

Caddick, Nick & Smith, Brett. (2014). The impact of sport and physical activity on the well-being of combat veterans: A systematic review. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 15, 9-18. Http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.psychsport.2013.09.011.

Goldstein, L., Mehling, W., Metzler, T., Cohen, B., Barnes, D., Choucroun, G., Neylan, T. (2018). Veterans Group Exercise: A randomized pilot trial of an Integrative Exercise program for veterans with posttraumatic stress. Journal of Affective Disorders, 227, 345-352. Http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2017.11.002

Levine, B., & Land, H. M. (2015). A meta-synthesis of qualitative findings about Dance/Movement Therapy for individuals with trauma. Qualitative Health Research, 26, 330-344. Http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1049732315589920

Ley, C., Barrio, M. R., & Koch, A. (2017). “In the Sport I Am Here”: Therapeutic processes and health effects of sport and exercise on PTSD. Qualitative Health Research, 28, 491-507. Http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1049732317744533

Rosenbaum, S., Vancampfort, D., Steel, Z., Newby, J., Ward, P., & Stubbs, B. (2015). Physical activity in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychiatry Research, 230, 130-136. Http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2015.10.017.

Taylor, C. B., Sallis, J. F., & Needle, R. (1985). The relation of physical activity and exercise to mental health. Public Health Reports, 100, 195-202.

West, J., Liang, B., & Spinazzola, J. (2017). Trauma sensitive yoga as a complementary treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder: A qualitative descriptive analysis. International Journal of Stress Management, 24, 173-195. Http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/str0000040

Note: This post was authored by Izzy Lederman and Ricky Greenwald, PsyD.


One Response

  1. On a child trauma web site, you might include a caveat that some who experienced c-PTSD may shut down (freeze). Dissociation can last for years or decades. (I only learned in my 30s, when I had my first massage, that I was cut off from my body—I felt so much pain during the massage and had not even been aware that my muscles were tight.) Those who freeze may become unwilling and/or unable to engage in exercise: a catch-22! Trauma-focused yoga can be a bridge from being shut down to starting to “re-inhabit” the body. One additional paragraph in the short piece above could mention this (how the freeze response and dissociation can lead to less and less movement) and link to helpful resources like Peter A. Levine (trauma polar bear YouTube video and Slinky video; David Berceli’s trauma prevention.org and/or his YouTube videos showing the trauma-releasing exercises he developed; Bessel van der Kolk’s book, “The Body Keeps the Score,” which helps explain how childhood trauma survivors (mal)adapt. Cheerio, and best wishes.

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