Exercise can be valuable in times of grief
For many, getting active can help cope with loss
Twenty months ago, Tamara Grand experienced every mother’s greatest fear: the loss of a child. Struggling with her grief, the 49-year-old personal trainer turned to what has always been her first line of defense when dealing with stress: exercise. While nothing could fill the hole in Grand’s heart, she has found that movement makes it easier to face her grief and to move forward.
Robert Neimeyer, a psychology professor at the University of Memphis whose research and practice focuses on bereavement, says that while exercise is by no means a panacea, it can play a valuable role in adapting to loss.
“It provides both direct benefits to mood and health and indirect benefits as it forces you out of isolation and into the world,” he says.
Allison Gilbert, a New York-based grief expert and author of “Passed and Present,” says that what grief takes away — energy, joy, focus — exercise can give back.
“Death of a loved one involves so many emotional drains,” she explains. “Exercise allows you to come into a space where you can focus on yourself and helps decrease the pulls on your energy. It restores some of your buoyancy.”
The link between exercise and depression, often a hallmark of grief, is well documented. George Mammen, a University of Toronto Ph.D. candidate, reviewed 25 pieces of research and concluded that moderate exercise can boost mood and can help ward off depression in the long term.
“Many studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of exercise regimens in improving mood for people who are moderately depressed, effects that are observed within a few weeks of beginning a fitness program,” Neimeyer says.
It doesn’t end with the emotional benefits, either. Neimeyer points out that fitness “pushes back” against the physical health risks of bereavement.
“Research suggests that having a regular exercise routine introduces a healthy structure into life, contributing to better nutrition and sleep patterns,” he says. “In this way, exercise promotes positive outcomes and indirectly mitigates the negative impact of grief, such as eating poorly or relying on vices to perk us up or calm us down.”
Numerous studies have looked at exercise as a method for treating depression. Patrick Smith, a psychiatry associate professor at Duke University and coauthor of several studies on the topic including “Is Exercise a Viable Treatment for Depression?,” says, “The short story is that in most head-to-head studies, exercise is equally as effective as antidepressants.”
What Smith and others have not determined is the amount of exercise required to deliver mood benefits.
“We used standard cardiac rehab protocols (three times per week at 70-85 percent max heart rate) in our studies, but the jury is out on what certain threshold is necessary for benefits,” he wrote in the abstract of one of his studies. “We do know that neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) are modified via exercise, leading to improved mood.”
That effect is transient, as people experience an exercise-induced surge in brain chemicals associated with improved mood, Smith says. But “once they feel the effects, they are more likely to return for more,” he says, “and that can lead to lasting changes and impacts.”
‘Difficult and awkward’
Just two weeks after losing her 13-year-old daughter to complications from a genetic heart condition, Grand, of British Columbia, forced herself back to the gym.
“As a fitness professional, my brain knew that movement would be an important part of my grieving process,” she says.
While exercise was the right idea, doing it in her regular gym where she was well known wasn’t, Grand says.
“It was difficult and awkward, and I felt like I was on show,” she says. “People constantly interrupted my workouts to offer condolences and ask questions,” which was emotionally draining.
This was more than Grand was ready for. “After about six weeks of trying this, a friend suggested a change of scenery might be in order,” she says.
She signed on for a smallgroup strength and conditioning program at another facility. “This worked wonders for me,” she says. “Not only was I anonymous, but all I had to do was show up and do the work.”
Adrienne Langelier, a licensed professional counselor from The Woodlands, says that emotional stress can make it hard to push yourself physically, but doing so should be seen as an important part of self-care.
“I was scheduled to run a marathon when my grandmother was in the hospital dying,” she says. “I wrestled with running it, but in the end, pushing through allowed me to be more present for my family.”
Her passion for running and ability to get out and do it helped with the intense grief she felt when her grandmother died, Langelier says. “Running filled my well instead of emptying it.”
Gilbert says that ideally, exercise is transformational during grief.
“It’s an opportunity to remove stress and gain the capacity to build resilience and make yourself happy.”
In the early stages of grief, it is easy to be passive and to let others take care of you.
“Through my own personal loss, I learned that it was up to me to move forward and find joy and happiness,” Gilbert says. “As the support goes away, it’s crucial to take the reins and take care of yourself.”
Tamara Grand lost her 13-year-old daughter, Clara, to complications from a genetic heart condition. Two weeks later, she forced herself back to the gym.