Regular exercise is one of the most effective ways to boost veteran mental health. Reports show more than 2.7 million service members have deployed since 9/11. Of that number, more than 400,000 have been affected by Post-Traumatic Disorder and Traumatic-Brain Injury. PTSD can often go untreated for many months, even years, and has been linked to other health problems such as chronic anxiety and depression.
Research suggests physical activity can improve mood and relieve some of the symptoms associated with PTSD, but it’s not always easy to go to the gym alone. One alternative is utilizing the wonderful outdoors. Here are some methods to incorporate nature into your routine:
RV Parks & Camping
Enjoy nature at your fingertips by camping or staying at an RV park. There are numerous campgrounds spread across each state. Campgrounds on military installations, called FAMCAMPS, and national parks have reduced rates but each location may vary in price according to military status. Military sponsors must be present during your stay. Spots are limited; Advanced reservation is recommended. Go online to find your desired location or call the nearest U.S. Army Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation or MWR.
High Adventure Sports
Wounded Warrior Project
Wounded Warrior Project is one of the most recognized nonprofit charities for war veterans after 9/11. The organization was designed to help veterans receive the support they needed to rehabilitate with the support of their community. When you become a member, you can elect to participate in Physical Health & Wellness which connects veterans with health communities, personal trainers, and nutritionists.
One of the most exciting programs to come from Wounded Warrior is the 90-day Odyssey Veteran Retreat designed to treat veterans who are affected by combat stress. Participants can expect a destination retreat that offers high adventure sports and recreational activities in conjunction to skill building with trained professionals and counselors. Some activities include horseback riding, canoeing, whitewater rafting, kayaking, rock climbing, a high ropes course, fishing, skeet shooting, sled hockey, and skiing (locations vary). Active Duty, Retired and Discharged or eligible pending verification. Visit the website for more details.
IKON Ski & Riding Passes
You don’t have to let dreary winter weather prevent you from going outdoors. High adventure winter sports is a great way to release adrenaline and relieve anxiety. The IKON Pass gives you access to 41 locations around the globe for skiing or riding, including 14 premier resorts. You can choose from several packages with a military discount depending on the frequency you prefer, but keep in mind the passes have blackout dates. Visit the IKON website to purchase a pass or ask a military installation near you. Some locations do provide passes before season.
Warrior Adventure Quest
Warrior Adventure Quest (WAQ) is an Army RESET training tool for service members post-deployment. The tiered system approach is designed to build coping and leadership skills within a facilitated physical activity. WAQ works in conjunction with MWR Outdoor Recreation to organize operational environments in high adventure settings, such as rock climbing, mountain biking, paintball, scuba, ropes course, white water rafting, etc. Find the nearest location here.
Hiking & Running
Hiking is an activity your whole family and pets can enjoy while strengthening family bonds. The next time you decide to have family time, check out what hiking trails are in your area or you can venture out to the more than 2000 National Parks in the U.S. Annual passes are free for all Active Duty military and their dependents, or a lifetime park access pass for veterans with disabilities. To obtain a pass, visit a ranger station and show a valid military I.D. Like hiking, running doesn’t have to be a solitary activity. Fitness and Sports Centers hold short or long-distance challenges and running clubs. Friendly competition is built into the military lifestyle and can be a fun way to challenge yourself on the track. Contact your military installation for the current fitness schedule.
Flyfishing combines the meditation of water with the method and endurance of sport. Veterans with disabilities can learn how to flyfish at Project Healing Waters, an organization with multiple regions around the country. The program partners with Fly Fishers International (FFI), Trout Unlimited (TU), and independent fly fishing clubs to offer outings and events. You’ll want to contact the regional coordinator to get started.
Project Healing Waters partnered with Freedom Ranch for Heroes to create a fly fishing retreat. The program is located in Big Sky Montana and hosts up to 160 veterans and military service members with disabilities each year. Visit the website and email for more information on how to apply.
Adaptive & Inclusive Recreation (AIR)
Military recreation facilities can provide AIR equipment and opportunities for individuals with disabilities. Modifications make physical activity more accessible. Some examples might include solo riders for golfers, pool lifts and flotation devices for swimmers, boats, kayaks with seatbacks, and modified game rules.
More on Mental Health
Sunshine and nature are two resources that are given to us for free, and taking advantage of the opportunities to explore can have long-lasting benefits to your health. The next time you are feeling down or overwhelmed, take some time to go outside for a walk, a hike, meditate or join one of the many outdoor communities accessible to veterans.
Trauma and combat stress is not uncommon and can be treated. It’s important to seek help if you feel you may be suffering from PTSD or other mental health disorders.
If you need help, call The Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) anytime to talk to a crisis counselor. Press “1” if you are a Veteran. The call is confidential and free. 24-7 chat is available online. You can also call 911 or go to your local emergency room.
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Cristina Van Orden is a literary writer and active military spouse. She holds an MFA from Antioch University and taught K-12 English before working in editorial. Cristina currently resides on base with her husband and children.