Adventure Awaits Those Who Saddle Up for Healing Journeys
5 Ways to Harness Physical Activity to Address Veteran Mental Health
It’s common to hear veterans express fondness for an adrenaline rush. Adrenaline is often a necessity as servicemen and women train and serve in combat.
Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) works to harness thrill-seeking behaviors for healing – leading to positive outcomes for warriors.
Marine veteran James Rivera is familiar with the need for that adrenaline rush.
“War can do that; although I consider my four years in the U.S. Marines as the best years of my life," James said.
“It’s the camaraderie you have in the Marines that gets you through the trauma, the stress, and the intensity,” James said. “When I finally came home, the camaraderie was gone, but the trauma lingered.”
Back stateside, James felt alone and depressed – until a friend handed him a brochure for WWP. Connecting with other veterans and sharing new bonding experiences were reinvigorating.
“I’m able to engage with life now, and share that with other veterans,” James said, adding that at WWP events, “there’s no ‘getting to know’ others; it’s just an instant connection.”
Exciting Adventures that Lead to Instant Connections
WWP offers warriors and family support members a variety of ways to let out their inner thrill-seeker and try new activities in a supportive community. These include:
- Riding motorcycles. A motorcycle, the wind in your hair, and the open road – Rolling Project Odyssey brings all that together to immerse warriors in adventure-based learning, mental health coping skills, and expanding their support network. “Whether on wheels or on foot, veterans receive the same insights and learn from the same curriculum as they would on any Project Odyssey,” said Ryan Kules, Project Odyssey director at WWP.
- Equine-assisted therapy. Equine-assisted therapy isn’t always adrenaline-inducing, but it can put a warrior in a state of mindfulness when connecting with the horse, either through grooming, riding, or simply being in its presence. WWP integrates equine-assisted therapy into various programs from connection events to its Independence Program.
For example, Air Force veteran Richard Daniel came back home with invisible wounds, including traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Through WWP’s Independence Program, he had a chance to try equine therapy.
“When I’m with the horse, the rest of the world disappears,” Richard said. “I’m talking with the horse and bonding with the horse.”
Warrior Care Network also use equine-assisted therapy. Horses react to what the person is doing, feeling, and thinking at the moment; not to what the person might have done in the past. This form of therapy can help ease veterans with PTSD into a judgment-free zone that helps them feel accepted.
To connect more warriors and families to equine therapy, WWP staff also work closely with PATH-certified facilities to provide one-on-one experiences. These PATH locations incorporate mental health into their services, as well as occupational and speech therapy. Globally, beyond WWP, PATH’s expertise is shared with 6,000 veterans each year.
- Bicycling. Warriors don’t ride alone during Soldier Ride® – they move forward together, as a unit, just like they did during their military service. Soldier Ride provides connection and care, creating a strong support system to help warriors manage visible and invisible wounds. Events use adaptive technology to help injured veterans get active pedaling or hand cycling while they build confidence. Warriors can also participate in mountain biking and skills development camps that introduce them to cycling techniques, safety, and drills to build their understanding of the sport. The Soldier Ride program also offers online workshops that engage warriors in virtual coffee socials, riding challenges, cycling maintenance tutorials, and more.
- Skiing and Snowboarding. In addition to the camps and traditional Soldier Ride events held during warmer weather, WWP’s ski and snowboarding skill training events help introduce the healing effects of being active in the snow. In these classes, injured warriors learn how to descend and stop safely, turn efficiently, and ride safely on the caterpillar and chair lift. Many of them experience snow for the first time, and they have plenty of opportunities to form bonds with other veterans.
- Water sports From kayaking to fishing to swimming with whale sharks, WWP warriors have opportunities to immerse themselves in healing through water adventures. While stress from combat situations may still be close to the surface, water activities like surfing and paddling can bring relaxation.
“Warriors can find peace and connection amongst other veterans while trying out something new, and many appreciate sharing the experience with their family,” said Dan Schnock, alumni director for WWP.
Whether through a one-time connection event or a structured program, WWP warriors have plenty of opportunities to experience life-enriching activities.
How Adventures Can Lead to Healing
According to the 2022 Annual Warrior Survey, the strongest predictor of poor quality of life is depression. Three in every four warriors (74%) report experiencing depression, and 78% report feeling isolated. The analysis also shows that social support is associated with lower rates of suicidal thoughts.
The link between physical and mental health is a recurring theme. For instance, so far in 2023, 17% of warriors who have participated in WWP’s physical health and wellness events relayed they experienced a reduction in depression symptoms.
“The evidence is irrefutable that physical activity reduces depression, improves mood, lowers stress, and decreases the use of prescription medication,” said James Herrera, vice president of physical health and wellness programs at WWP.
“You get an even greater impact when doing activities that put you in what we’d call a state of flow – an experience that has you so focused on the task at hand, nothing else can enter the mind,” Herrera explained. “Imagine buzzing down a mountain bike trail with the trees on either side, the wind in your face, and having to navigate around roots and rocks. Activities that create this hyper-awareness allow us to disconnect from the day to day and anything that may be weighing us down. It’s incredibly impactful and cost effective.”
“Some of our favorite activities to introduce to warriors are mountain biking, snow skiing and snowboarding, archery, rock climbing, and water sports,” Herrera added. “Yes, there might be an element of adrenaline associated with those activities, but it’s not necessarily the adrenaline that’s the benefit. It’s the heightened state of mindfulness someone can experience. Add to that the benefit of finding flow in the outdoors – there’s an abundance of research on what being in nature does for our mental health.”
The activities listed here are part of WWP programs for post-9/11 warriors and their family members. For information, please contact the WWP Resource Center.
If a program is not immediately available, a warrior may be referred to a partner organization offering a similar program.
Learn more about WWP's mental health services for veterans.
Learn more about WWP’s physical health and wellness programs.
Contact: Raquel Rivas – Public Relations, email@example.com, 904.426.9783
About Wounded Warrior Project
Since 2003, Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) has been meeting the growing needs of warriors, their families, and caregivers — helping them achieve their highest ambition. Learn more.