Robert Neimeyer, a professor of psychology 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 direct benefits to mood and health and indirect benefits. as it forces you out of isolation and into the world."
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. Exercise allows you to come into a space where you can focus on yourself and help 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 PhD candidate, reviewed 25 pieces of research and concluded that moderate exercise can boost mood and 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 programme,” 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. 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, an associate professor of psychiatry at Duke University and co-author 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.
“The jury is out on what threshold is necessary,” he wrote.
“We do know that neurotransmitters 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.”
Over time, though, Smith says, “these same changes appear to have more enduring, systemic effects,” possibly even causing the growth of neurons in a part of the brain that often atrophies in depressed people.
“The key is for patients to find something convenient and enjoyable enough that they will keep at it for the long term. In almost every study I’ve been a part of ... when we evaluated participants again six months to a year after ending the intervention, those who continued or began exercising regularly had the lowest risk of relapsing into depression.”
Just two weeks after losing her 13-year-old daughter to complications from a genetic heart condition, Grand, 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."
So Grand signed on for a small-group strength and conditioning programme 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.”
Grand spent the next eight months as part of this group.
“At the end of that time, I felt ready to go back to my regular gym and take charge of my own workouts again,” she says.
“I also returned to teaching group exercise about two months after Clara’s death. The fantastic energy I get from my morning classes has often spilled over and sustained me for the rest of the day.”
Adrienne Langelier, a counsellor from Texas, 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 hospital dying,” she says.
“I wrestled with running it, but pushing through allowed me to be more present for my family.”
Her passion for running helped with the intense grief she felt when her grandmother died, Langelier says. “Running filled my well instead of emptying it.”
In the early stages of grief, it is easy to be passive and 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.