Regina researcher hopes to find that aerobic exercise helps vets with PTSD

REGINA – University of Regina researcher Mathew Fetzner has seen the mental toll that war can have.

The 27-year-old is now a doctoral student in the university’s psychology department, but was once a military man himself.

His first degree was a bachelor of arts in psychology from Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont. He reached the rank of corporal and spent six years in reserve units. Fetzner’s grandfather served in Korea and his brother is a captain based at CFB Gagetown.

Fetzner was never deployed himself, but watched his buddies go overseas.

“I can think of one guy, he came back and for a while he wasn’t really himself,” he says.

“I remember before he came back he was usually laughing and joking – life of the party – and when he came back he really didn’t want to talk to anybody. I’m not saying that he had PTSD because I don’t know, but I think there was something different about him for a while.”

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That experience is prompting Fetzner’s research on the effects of aerobic exercise on reducing post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. This week, he was awarded a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Fetzner will get $50,000 per year for three years through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

“My ultimate goal for this is to find ways to better treat individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder,” Fetzner says.

“Treatment adherence within PTSD treatment is always a problem and acceptability of treatment is always a problem, just because sitting down, talking with somebody isn’t always appealing to people. So if we can find adjuncts to treatment that can help individuals with PTSD, you know this could be a good leap forward.”

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that the Canadian Forces website describes as an extreme reaction to stress. Symptoms include nightmares or flashbacks, avoidance of people or places that remind the individual of the traumatic event, exaggerated startle response, mood swings or disturbed sleep.

The military says the vast majority of soldiers that deploy do not develop PTSD. Post-deployment screening three to six months after return has shown that about five per cent of personnel report symptoms of PTSD, depression or both.

One of the most high-profile cases of PTSD involved former general, now Sen. Romeo Dallaire.

Dallaire went public with his own struggles with post-traumatic stress following his United Nations mission during the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Dallaire was found in 2000 half-conscious and curled in a fetal position in a Quebec park. In his autobiography, the former soldier admitted he twice tried to kill himself.

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There has been a reluctance among many returning soldiers to admit they might have PTSD because they don’t want to appear weak.

Fetzner hopes that getting on a treadmill might be an easier pill for vets to swallow. He noted that exercise has been proven to help alleviate depression.

“There’s literature out there that suggests that aerobic exercise has effective mental health benefits,” he said.

“Part of my research will be looking at, first off, does the therapeutic effects that are recognized in other disorders carry forward to post-traumatic stress disorder, which all preliminary evidence kind of suggests that it does.”

Fetzner said it will be a long process. It could be a few months before the physical tests actually start. He’ll need more time to analyse the data and publish the findings.

He knows the findings will be important to a lot of people.

“Especially now with the Canadian Forces ending … their combat role in Afghanistan, we’re getting a lot of guys coming back and we’re seeing something that we haven’t really seen in Canadian history before. We’ve gone through over a decade of war and it’s a different kind of war than we’ve seen in the past, too, and we’re seeing a lot of mental health ramifications of that.

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“So I think now is a really important time to be cognisant of effective ways of treatment.”