Researched by Shannon Wahler. Written by Ruth MacDougall
What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘therapy’? Hospitals and doctor’s offices? Waiting rooms and clinics? What about rivers, forests, and golf courses?
Studies show that outdoor sports and recreational activities have value as therapy. They can help physical and psychological problems. They can decrease PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) symptoms, depression, anxiety, and stress. They can increase social functioning, sense of accomplishment, and inner strength.
A range of sports and recreational activities can be therapeutic. A variety of recreation therapy programs have been developed for Veterans. Some have specific eligibility criteria. Many are free to participants. Here we present some programs available to Veterans in the categories of:
NOTE: Know A Vet? does not endorse or guarantee any of the programs mentioned here. We include them for information purposes.
Adventure sports are sport activities that may involve a certain degree of risk and bravery.
Veteran Bill Geiger says adventure sports “get you outside your own head”. They provide the brain with the adrenaline it may have gotten used to in a war situation but allow focusing it in positive ways.
Three adventure sport programs for Veterans are:
Jump for Valor This program’s purpose is to “better the lives of military Veterans through participation in skydiving and aerial sports.” Facing fears, fine-tuning situational awareness, creating confidence and improving communication are a few of the benefits of skydiving.
Video: Skydiving for Vets
Project Odyssey This program challenges warriors to “step outside the comfort of their everyday routines.” Using adventure-based learning, it presents experiences that help develop coping and communication skills. Project Odyssey is Wounded Warrior Project.
X Sports 4 Vets This group of conflict Veterans strives to help other combat Veterans succeed through extreme sports. It uses extreme sports to “take the edge out of civilian life.”
Archery is the art, sport, practice, or skill of using a bow to shoot arrows, especially at targets.
Supporters say that aiming at a target requires focus, concentration, and slow, regulated breathing. This helps block out distracting thoughts and painful emotions. Benefits include self-discipline, increased core and upper body strength, calmness, focus, and a healthy outlook.
Three archery programs for Veterans are:
Bows for Veterans This group uses archery for the recreation, physical, and psychological wellbeing of today’s Veterans. Through archery, veterans can relieve their stress, achieve a sense of calmness and spend time with others that understand them.
V.E.T.S. Outdoor Sports Program – Archery. Through archery, participants in this program learn coordination, dexterity, focus, confidence and strength. It views archery as “a warrior art that aligns with the veteran warrior mindset.”
Arrows for Heroes This group’s mission is to improve quality of life for disabled Veterans through the practice of the sport and art of archery. A participant says “Archery has done so much for me. First, it allows me to feel like I’m a part of a team again since being injured. It helps me deal with my PTSD, TBI, C/L Spine Fusions and other injuries. With archery you can have fun with a low impact sport.”
Equine therapy is a treatment method that uses the connection between people and horses to enhance emotional healing.
Research shows that equine therapy can “jump-start” healing for veterans who suffer from PTSD. This therapy “facilitates bonding, overcoming fear, and re-establishing confidence.”
Three equine programs for Veterans are:
BraveHearts Participants in this program have reported increased self-esteem, self-worth, and trust for others. They have reported decreased depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder attacks and self-inflicting thoughts.
Veterans Equine Therapeutic Services V.E.T.S. provides programs to Veterans with physical, cognitive and emotional challenges. Participants see improvements like strength, flexibility and balance, cognitive, behavioral and emotional well-being.
Fly fishing is a style of fishing that uses a light-weight lure called an artificial fly.
A 2017 study found that fly fishing decreased symptoms of PTS, depression, stress, and functional impairment. It increased leisure satisfaction and self-determination.
Three fly fishing programs for Veterans are:
Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing PHWFF is a leader and model in the field of therapeutic outdoor recreation for the disabled. It uses the sport of fly fishing as a rehabilitation tool. PHWFF provides programs for disabled active military service personnel and disabled Veterans.
Video: Henry Winkler Champions Project Healing Waters
Rivers of Recovery This program specializes in rehabilitation for combat Veterans suffering with PTSD, minor Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI), stress, anxiety, and depression.
Veterans Fly Fishing This program was founded by Veterans for Veterans. They serve as teachers and guides to any Veteran or active duty military who wants to learn the art of fly fishing.
Golf is a sport in which players use a club to hit a ball into a series of holes on a course, using the fewest number of strokes.
The GIVE study showed that golf can help physical and cognitive function. It provides an overall sense of well-being.
Listen to a Veteran in this video talk about how golf helps him deal with PTSD.
Three golf programs for Veterans are:
PGA HOPE This program introduces golf to Veterans with disabilities. The program enhances physical, mental, social, and emotional well-being. Instruction is from members of the Professional Golfers’ Association.
Veterans’ Golf Program VGP is a California-based program. VGP identifies Veterans’ unmet needs through fellowship fostered by golfing. Once identified, VGP introduces the Veterans to sources of help. Help includes food, shelter, transportation, medical and psychiatric services.
Vets Whole in One This program helps Veterans transition to civilian life through meditation, shared meals, and golf. It tries to implement strategies that not only focus on the physical health, but the mental health of Veterans as well.
Scuba Diving is an underwater activity involving the use of self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA).
Reports show that diving helps to improve muscle movement, reduce back and neck pain, and lessen symptoms of PTSD.
Three scuba diving programs for Veterans are:
Patriots for Disabled Divers PFDD is dedicated to bringing the joy and therapeutic benefits of scuba to people with disabilities. They’ve “changed the lives of people with PTSD, autism, paraplegia, quadriplegia, traumatic brain injury and other disabilities.”
Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba SUDS helps disabled Veterans through participation in Scuba diving. It helps participants overcome physical limitations to become certified Scuba divers.
Waves Project Waves helps injured Veterans experience the freedom and challenges of scuba diving. They work with many types of injuries, from brain trauma, to double and triple amputees, and PTSD.
Wilderness adventures are outdoor activities that take place in undeveloped, natural areas.
Studies show that nature can help improve mental health. Extended group-based outdoor recreation programs may ease Veterans’ transition back into civilian life.
Three wilderness experience programs for Veterans are:
Outward Bound for Veterans This program serves returning service members and recent Veterans. The wilderness expeditions are physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging. They build self-confidence, pride, trust, and communication skills. This helps participants transition back to civilian life.
Veteran Adventures This program serves military Veterans with PTSD and other disabilities. It promotes connecting, or reconnecting, with family, friends, and nature.
Veterans Expeditions This program is community oriented and outdoor focused. Its mission is to empower Veterans to overcome challenges associated with military service. It does this through outdoor training and leadership.
Video: Why VetEx
Bennett, J. L., Piatt, J. A., & Van Puymbroeck, M. (2017). Outcomes of a Therapeutic Fly-Fishing Program for Veterans with Combat-Related Disabilities: A Community-Based Rehabilitation Initiative. Community Mental Health Journal, 53(7), 756–765. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10597-017-0124-9
Boulder Crest Foundation. (n.d.). Warrior Pathh. Retrieved June 17, 2022, from https://bouldercrest.org/warriorpathh/
Bows For Veterans. (n.d.). Retrieved June 17, 2022, from http://bowsforveterans.org/
BraveHearts. (n.d.). Veteran Services. BraveHearts Riding. Retrieved June 18, 2022, from https://braveheartsriding.org/services/
D’Aniello Institute for Veterans & Military Families. (n.d.). The Impact of Sport and Physical Activity on the Well-Being of Combat Veterans: A Systematic Review. IVMF. https://ivmf.syracuse.edu/article/the-impact-of-sport-and-physical-activity-on-the-well-being-of-combat-veterans-a-systematic-review/#
Fisher PW, Lazarov A, Lowell A, et al. Equine-assisted therapy for posttraumatic stress disorder among military veterans: an open trial. J Clin Psychiatry. 2021;82(5):21m14005. https://doi.org/10.4088/JCP.21m14005
Jump4Valor. (n.d.). Jump For Valor. Retrieved June 12, 2022, from https://jump4valor.org/
Kaiseler, M., Kay, C., & McKenna, J. (2019). The Impact of an Outdoor and Adventure Sports Course on the Wellbeing of Recovering UK Military Personnel: An Exploratory Study. Sports (Basel, Switzerland), 7(5), 112. https://doi.org/10.3390/sports7050112
MacDonald, Jessica. (2014, June 11). Scuba Therapy For Wounded War Vets. Scuba Diver Life. Retrieved June 17, 2022, from https://scubadiverlife.com/scuba-therapy-wounded-war-vets/
Meltzer, M. (2020, May 20). Veterans Are Using Adventure Sports To Treat PTSD, and It’s Working. Matador Network. https://matadornetwork.com/read/veterans-ptsd-sports-therapy/#:~
Outward Bound. (n.d.). Veterans Expeditions. Retrieved June 18, 2022, from https://www.outwardbound.org/expeditions/-outward-bound-for-veterans/
PGA Reach. (n.d.). PGA Hope. Retrieved June 17, 2022, from https://www.pgareach.org/services/military
Project Healing Waters Flyfishing. (n.d.). Welcome to Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, Inc. Retrieved June 7, 2022, from https://projecthealingwaters.org/
The Ranch. (n.d.). Archery Therapy Program. Recovery Ranch. Retrieved June 17, 2022, from https://www.recoveryranch.com/addiction-treatment-center-programs-nashville-tn/addiction-therapy-programs/archery-therapy-program/
Rivers of Recovery. (n.d.). Retrieved June 17, 2022, from http://www.riversofrecovery.org/
SUDS. (n.d.). Servicemembers Undertaking Disabled Sports. SUDS Diving. Retrieved June 17, 2022, from https://sudsdiving.org/
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (n.d.). VA Adaptive Sports & Therapeutic Arts. Retrieved June 18, 2022, from https://www.blogs.va.gov/nvspse/
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (n.d.). Recreation Therapy Service. Retrieved June 18, 2022, from https://www.prosthetics.va.gov/rectherapy/index.asp
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2014, February 19). Outdoor activities improve mental health in Veterans, study finds. https://www.research.va.gov/currents/winter2013-14/winter2013-14-25.cfm
Undersea Warriors. (n.d.). Retrieved June 17, 2022, from https://underseawarriors.org/
Veteran Adventures, Inc. (n.d.). Helping Vets Connect Through Recreation. Retrieved June 18, 2022, from https://www.veteran-adventures.org/
Veterans Equine Therapeutic Services. (n.d.). Outdoor Sports Program – Archery. V.E.T.S. Retrieved June 16, 2022, from https://vetsct.org/veterans-outdoor-sports-programs-archery/
Veterans Equine Therapeutic Services. (n.d.). V.E.T.S. Retrieved June 18, 2022, from https://vetsct.org/
Veterans Expeditions. (n.d.). Retrieved June 18, 2022, from https://www.vetexpeditions.com/
Veterans Flyfishing. (n.d.). Join Us On Our Next Outing. Retrieved June 17, 2022, from http://veteransflyfishing.org/
Veterans’ Golf Program. (n.d.). Retrieved June 17, 2022, from https://www.veteransgolfprogram.org/
Veterans Healing Farm. (n.d.). Equine Therapy. Retrieved June 17, 2022, from http://veteranshealingfarm.org/equine-therapy/
Vets Whole In One. (n.d.). How Will Golf Help You? Retrieved June 17, 2022, from https://www.vetswholeinone.org/golf/
Waves Project Incorporated. Retrieved June 18, 2022, from https://www.wavesproject.org/
Wheeler, M., Cooper, N. R., Andrews, L., Hacker Hughes, J., Juanchich, M., Rakow, T., & Orbell, S. (2020). Outdoor recreational activity experiences improve psychological wellbeing of military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder: Positive findings from a pilot study and a randomised controlled trial. PloS one, 15(11), e0241763. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0241763
Wounded Warrior Project. (n.d.). Project Odyssey. Retrieved June 17, 2022, from https://www.woundedwarriorproject.org/programs/project-odyssey
XSports4Vets. (n.d.). Dedicated to helping our nation’s heroes through extreme sports. Retrieved June 17, 2022, from http://xsports4vets.org/