Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is prevalent among military Veterans, and affects over 30% of older, Vietnam-era Veterans. These servicemembers have endured nearly 40 years with these symptoms, and as a result, have significantly poorer health, higher rates of chronic disease and obesity, and an excess mortality rate 3 times higher than the general population. Clearly PTSD is more than just a psychological disorder. There is evidence to suggest that the pathway from PTSD to poor health is mediated by behavioral risk factors, such as exercise. Structured exercise is a highly effective, pluripotent strategy for the prevention, treatment, and management of chronic physical and psychological health conditions in older adults. To date, only a few pilot studies of exercise and PTSD have been published, and all suffer a major limitation: a singular focus on outcomes ?above the neck.? These studies do not report the impact of exercise on physical health- and mobility-related outcomes that contribute to long-term impairment and disability in Veterans with PTSD. There have been no studies of exercise and PTSD done in older adults, representing a significant research gap. This research examines a wellness-based approach to promoting health in older Veterans with PTSD, targeting exercise, a major modifiable risk factor. The objective of this study is to compare the impact of a supervised exercise program on PTSD symptoms and related health outcomes versus a healthy aging attention control group (HA-ATC). This study will be a randomized controlled trial of a 6-month, supervised exercise program among 188 Veterans ?60 years of age with PTSD at the Durham VAHCS. Participants will be randomly assigned to Supervised Exercise or HA-ATC. The exercise arm will include 3 weekly exercise sessions, each one lasting approximately 60 minutes, led by an exercise specialist. The HA-ATC will receive a health education program and materials modeled on the 10 KeysTM to Healthy Aging curriculum and the National Council on Aging?s ?Aging Mastery Program.? The HA-ATC will include an 8-week face-to-face group program followed by 4 monthly sessions, the latter of which will be further supplemented with mailed informational packets, email newsletters, webinars, and group video telehealth sessions. Participants in the Exercise intervention arm will receive an individualized exercise prescription based on the individual?s exercise history, current exercise capacity, personal preferences, and current health status. This will be a multicomponent program that includes a selection of 8 to 12 strengthening, balance, and flexibility exercises targeting the major muscle groups as well as primary joints. Participants will also be instructed in endurance exercise, including treadmill walking or recumbent bicycle. The exercise protocol will consist of a 5-10 minute warm-up, followed by a series of progressive aerobic and strengthening exercises, and will end with a 5 minute cool-down. The primary outcome for this study will be PTSD symptoms assessed with the CAPS-5. Physical function, another outcome of primary interest will be measured objectively with a Physical Performance Battery. This test battery assesses aspects of daily function including balance (single leg stance), gait speed (4 meter walk), and chair stands (# in 30 seconds). Aerobic endurance, the investigators? primary functional outcome, will be assessed with the 6-minute walk test (6MWT). Secondary outcomes include depression, sleep, and cognitive function. Outcomes will be assessed at baseline, 3 months, and 6 months. Assessments will be repeated 12 weeks post-intervention (9 months) to examine whether any observed exercise intervention effects are maintained. Mixed linear models will be used to compare outcomes for the two study arms.

Public Health Relevance

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is prevalent among military Veterans and is more than just a psychological condition; PTSD has profound negative impacts on health, function, and quality of life. Older Veterans are the largest patient population served by the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), and many have lived with PTSD for 30+ years. Veterans with PTSD engage in low levels of physical activity and spend much of their time in sedentary activities, adding to their risk of physical disability. The benefits of exercise on mental health and physical well-being in older adults are well-substantiated, but the effects of exercise training on late-life PTSD symptoms is a new area of study. This study is designed to examine the effects of 6 months of supervised exercise training on PTSD symptoms and PTSD-related conditions (e.g., functional impairment, sleep) in older Veterans with chronic PTSD. This study speaks directly to VHA?s mission and emphasis on non- pharmacologic approaches to improve mental health and well-being of older Veterans with chronic PTSD.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
Veterans Affairs (VA)
Non-HHS Research Projects (I01)
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Durham VA Medical Center
United States
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