The impact of an exercise training intervention on cortisol levels and post-traumatic stress disorder in juveniles from an Ugandan refugee settlement: study protocol for a randomized control trial

Article Authors: Henning Budde, Davin P. Akko, Herbert E. Ainamani, Eric Murillo-Rodríguez & Roland Weierstall


Background: Latest research demonstrates a significant improvement in stress-related symptoms in psychological disorders as a result of exercise training (ET). Controlled clinical trials further validate the significance of ET by demonstrating lower salivary cortisol levels in patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after intervention. A significant change in cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) levels can already be found after an 8–12-week ET program. The proposed study aims to investigate the impact of an 8-week ET on PTSD symptoms and changes in cortisol levels in a juvenile refugee sample from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) at an Ugandan refugee settlement. It is the first to implement an ET intervention in a resource-poor, post-conflict setting. Methods/design: In a randomized controlled trial, 198 adolescent participants aged 13–16 years from the DRC who, suffer from PTSD, will be investigated. The participants are based at the Nakivale refugee settlement, an official refugee camp in Uganda, Africa, which is among the largest in the world. The participants will be randomized into an Exercise Training (ET) group with a maximum heart rate (HRmax) of > 60%, an Alternative Intervention (AI) group with low-level exercises, and a Waiting-list Control (WC) group. After the 8-week interventional phase, changes in cortisol awakening response (CAR) and DHEA in the ET group that correspond to an improvement in PTSD symptoms are expected that remain at follow-up after 3 months. Discussion: To date, there is no controlled and reliable longitudinal study examining the effects of an ET program on symptom severity in individuals with PTSD that can be explained with a harmonization of cortisol secretion. The presented study design introduces an intervention that can be implemented with little expenditure. It aims to provide a promising low-threshold and cost-effective treatment approach for the application in resource-poor settings. Trial registration: German Trials Register, ID: DRKS00014280. Registered prospectively on 15 March 2018. Keywords: Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Exercise training, Juvenile refugees, Cortisol, Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis

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