Ex­er­cise can be valu­able in times of grief

For many, get­ting ac­tive can help cope with loss

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - HEALTH | SCIENCE - By Amanda Loudin

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.

Pos­i­tive out­comes

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.”

‘Push­ing through’

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.”

Cour­tesy Ta­mara Grand / Washington Post

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.

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