As a naval medical officer with nearly two decades of operational mental health experience, I’m often asked: “What can I start doing today to help my mental situation get better?”

In this time of what is referred to as “patient-centered care,” the answer to that question is unique for every individual:  What works for you may not work for someone else. While medicines most certainly have their place, I’m here to give you one word of advice that, according to both my own experience and wide-ranging research in the field, has shown to provide positive benefit to almost everyone:  Exercise.

Exercising with others is a great motivator. Semper Fi Fund offers a recreational, team-based, sport program called Team Semper Fi for injured servicemen and women who use sport as a rehabilitative tool on their road to recovery.  The motivation, inspiration and camaraderie that Team Semper Fi offers is truly extraordinary.

Whether that physical activity takes place as part of a team or as an individual in a gym, out on the hiking trail (with the added therapeutic benefit of nature) or in your own backyard, exercise simply means increased physical activity. The benefits you’re likely to see from increasing your activity by as little as thirty minutes a day three days a week make the effort very worthwhile. These include:

  • Reduce stress and anxiety
    Exercise increases the presence of all sorts of good chemicals in the brain: norepinephrine, for example, which helps the brain respond to stress. And you’ve probably heard of endorphins: These chemicals trigger positive feelings (ever heard the term “runner’s high”?) even as they reduce perceptions of pain. It sounds like a big win-win, doesn’t it? Well, it is — and many studies have shown that even moderate walking (three orSimple graphic with the top 3 benefits listed four days a week for 30 minutes at a time) can deliver very positive benefits.
  • Increased brain health
    When you exercise, you increase the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) — a protein in the brain that’s important for long-term memory. Low levels of BDNF in the brain have been linked to Alzheimer’s, obesity and depression.  Moreover, BDNF is also important for helping brain cells and neurons grow and form important connections with other neurons, Neuroplasticity is a term you’ll be hearing much more about as scientists tackle a significant concern for veterans — traumatic brain injury.
  • Improved sleep patterns
    The Centers for Disease Control recently reported that insufficient sleep has become an important public health issue. In fact, more than a third of Americans fail to get sufficient sleep on a regular basis. Why is this important? An insufficient quantity of sleep, chronically, is linked to seven of the 15 leading causes of death in the U.S. today!

You feel much better after a good night’s sleep than you do after a restless night’s sleep, right? That’s hardly a surprise: Sleep is the body’s way of recharging itself — not just physically, but also mentally.

When you exercise, you’re increasing your body’s temperature; the drop in temperature after exercising is a signal to the body to get some sleep. A recent study by the National Sleep Foundation found that “people sleep significantly better and feel more alert during the day if they get at least 150 minutes of exercise a week.”

The health benefits of exercise are particularly notable for Veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress. Research has shown that focusing one’s mind on the physical activity at hand, whether it’s walking, hiking, swimming, seated cardio or whatever it may be, can help reduce the immobilization stress response familiar to anyone suffering from PTSD.

Of course, there are many more benefits to exercise that I don’t have space to comment on here, for example: Improved self-confidence. A sharper memory. Better control over addictive impulses. A force multiplier for therapeutic efforts. Increased energy and stamina. An improved overall mood.

So, get out there and get moving — you have nothing to lose but those negative thoughts — and maybe a few less sleepless nights, too!

To learn more visit Team Semper Fi.

image of Dr. Bob Koffman.Navy Capt. Robert Koffman, M.D., was the senior consultant for Integrative Medicine & Behavioral Health at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence in Bethesda, Maryland. With more than three decades of active service and two decades of boots-on-the-ground operational experience as a naval medical officer, Koffman serves as medical director for the Semper Fi Fund.

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Published on Feb. 8, 2017

Estimated reading time is 3.8 min.

Views to date: 143


  1. Anthony Teta February 13, 2017 at 9:04 am

    Couple yrs ago-My neighbor and then another stranger shared their success testimonys using turmeric-

    Visible arthritis condition in hands;
    She explained she had tried multiple prescriptions with little to no relief for many years. She heard bout benefits turmeric & tried it- it helped SIGNIFICANTLY: says its the ONLY real relief

    she explained her husband fills gel capsules
    with the powdered turneric while watching tv. She did not like the taste of eating or drinking the whole spice powder.
    I tried this but was too labor intensive

  2. Anthony Teta February 13, 2017 at 8:42 am

    Pain in joints? Encourage you to use turmeric; Sam’s Club has great price on capsules. I use capsules for convenience but also the ‘standardized’ dose. I also use, & initially began with mixing a teasoon turmeric in my tbsp apple cider vinegar, & 8 oz water upon waking/rising. As I learned more, researched online & read articles-
    I added 1/4 tsp black pepper to that morning tonic as well as 1/2 tsp MSM.

    Currently (due to transition/temporary living quarters- convenience/quick & simple required) I simply take a capsule in the am and again pm/before sleep.

    Online or fav supplement store is sure to have this stocked: it is touted as one of TOP OVERALL BODY ANTI-INFLAMMATORYS AVAILABLE.

    Turmeric has Curcumin, thats the active component –
    Black pepper has Bioprene:
    studies say mix with black pepper & turmeric, the bioprene increases blood absorption.

    My Tonic Recipe
    8oz water (pure/filtered/best source available)
    1 tbsp Braggs Organic Apple Cider Vinegar
    1 tsp turmeric
    1/2 tsp MSM powder
    1/4 tsp fine ground black pepper
    (I grind my own whole peppercorns in my coffee bean grinder)

  3. Arden E. Heinrich February 10, 2017 at 5:07 pm

    Belonging to VA has been the best thing that I have ever been associated with.

  4. Arden E. Heinrich February 10, 2017 at 5:04 pm

    I belong to VA and cannot say enough good VA has done for me. They have the best health care program of all others that I have been associated with.

  5. Rene Roy February 10, 2017 at 11:23 am

    I can’t predict how long I will live, however I do not want to suffer before I get there which is the reason I walk at least 2 or 3 miles per day. It is a habit now and I feel very uncomfortable when I don’t. I started walking at 72 and now I can walk over 3 miles with little stress. The benefits to me have been…
    * Lower blood presser and heart rate
    * Lower stress and clearer thinking
    * Better sleep
    * More energy
    * Weight loss and a leaner body
    This is my routine:
    Before going for a walk I get on my inversion rack for about 5 minutes which helps the brain, circulation and lower back. I use lower back support while walking. While walking I use a phone application which tracks goal rated distances, steps and heart rate. You may think this is crazy, but after my walk I add tablespoon of turmeric and ginger powder in a glass with a slice of lemon, apple cider and water. Believe me; this mixture really works for I have very little inflation and there are many other benefits. As a side note when my back bothers me I go right back to my inversion rack; pills do more harm than natural remedies.

    • Colleen Wilson February 10, 2017 at 8:38 pm

      I am so hopeful after seeing your post. I exercise and eat well. I don’t smoke or drink. However I have too much inflammation and was reading today about everything you put in your drink on several internet sites. I’ll give it a try and be crazy with you!

    • Cherie Fuchs February 11, 2017 at 7:36 pm

      Rene: – what parts apple cider and water do you use? And you use a tablespoon, not a teaspoon, for the turmeric and ginger? thanks for the suggestion.

  6. Samson I. Terroux February 9, 2017 at 6:24 pm

    I’ll offer a small tip that can maybe help some of the readers: if you can, try and entirely empty your mind while running. If a thought comes (it will always come!), gently “breathe it out” and return to this mind-emptying exercice. I was taught this form of active meditation 12 years and this is the best piece of advice I can give to would-be runners.

    This is an excellent piece by Capt. Koffman. Obviously, running very regularly has been helping tremendously since returning from the front lines.

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