This story discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please contact the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
This Veterans Day holiday brings with it an added focus on mental health. Sadly, many servicemen and women come back stateside to a lack of emotional and psychosocial support following their tours of service. However, one simple activity can help improve former soldiers' minds and psyches, even as it trains their bodies: Physical fitness.
According to the most recent statistics, in 2020, a total of 6,146 veterans committed suicide — nearly 17 per day, and the 20th straight year with at least 6,000 veteran suicides. Veterans face a suicide rate more than 50% higher than those who have not served in the military, a mental burden that our nation's bravest men and women should not have to bear alone.
The reasons for the epidemic of veteran suicides vary and explain the more significant problems plaguing many veterans' mental health. For example, in some branches, up to 31% of service members report symptoms of post-traumatic stress after combat and with most businesses not providing specific recruiting avenues for veterans or transition support, some former soldiers find it difficult to find jobs to pay their bills, and adapt to life in general, when returning to the private sector.
Fixing veterans' mental health difficulties will involve addressing these myriad and disparate causes. However, one simple step can help all veterans, regardless of their specific mental health needs: A physical fitness regimen.
Numerous journal articles and medical publications have documented the clear link between exercise and reductions in anxiety and depression. The Mayo Clinic notes that exercise releases feel-good endorphins that improve well-being, while providing a positive outlet for individuals to focus on, instead of the worries that feed into mental anxiety.
Just as important: Regular exercise helps enhance social interactions, whether as part of a sports team or just by being out and about in one's neighborhood. For returning soldiers, who can suffer from feelings of loneliness and isolation after leaving the military, camaraderie through organized exercise can provide critically important psychosocial bonds connecting veterans with others like them.
As two individuals committed to helping military families, we recognize the way in which physical fitness can help to transform veterans' lives. Having seen his best friend lose his son in Afghanistan, Jason has cultivated veteran clients for his CrossFit business, knowing the link between physical fitness and mental wellness. Serving over 20 years in the special operations community as a SEAL brings with it a myriad number of stressors, and Eddie states that transition out is even more difficult. "The reason I managed to do so well mentally and physically over eight combat deployments and be able to survive transition is all due to making fitness a priority in my life."
Of course, physical fitness alone will not solve all the problems faced by returning soldiers. Better access to mental health therapy, support from military and non-military organizations, and a sharper focus on the unique challenges veterans face will help alleviate the underlying causes of veterans' anxiety. But physical fitness brings with it many benefits and few drawbacks, making it a critical tool in the arsenal to improve mental health.
Two millennia ago, the Roman poet Juvenal coined the phrase mens sana in corpore sano — "a healthy mind in a healthy body." That phrase should guide our energies this Veterans Day, as we work to welcome our heroes home, and give them the support — both mental and physical — that they need to succeed in all their post-military endeavors.
Jason Welch is a fitness coach and owner of Crossfit Cadre in Hudson, Ohio.