If you are in the middle of grief yourself, or are watching someone else walk through it, you know that grief affects our minds and hearts, wreaking havoc on emotions. But we often forget that grief can have a profound affect on our physical bodies as well. In our Grief & Self-Care Series we have talked about sleep and today we will address the value of exercise amidst grief.
Grief is interpreted by our physical bodies as a stressor which, unbeknownst to us, pushes our body into battle mode. Through a series of chemical responses, a hormone is produced called cortisol, also known as the “stress hormone.” When our bodies have a prolonged exposure to this stress hormone we become physically sick, our immune systems are weakened, we can feel weak, fatigued, anxious, depressed and irritable. We can experience intense mood swings, memory loss, an increase in blood sugar levels and blood pressure.
In general we understand the value of exercise, but for the person grieving it is even more important.
According to an article by Harvard Medical School: “Exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators. Endorphins are responsible for the “runner’s high” and for the feelings of relaxation and optimism that accompany many hard workouts…”
When we are grieving our bodies need those endorphins more than ever. I understand that exercising may feel like the very last thing you want to do but trust me, I promise it will help. And like I said in the first post in the Self-Care Series, “Friend, this is me giving you a hug and telling you, we need you here. You’re loved. And you’re valued. I know there are moments when you feel like giving up, I know there are moments when you don’t want the world to go on or the sun to come up and that the idea of a shower or a walk or a even brushing your teeth feels utterly meaningless in the face of such loss. But don’t give up.”
After my son died one of the most generous, thoughtful and helpful gifts anyone gave to me was a membership to a local gym and a few sessions with a person trainer. There were many days it was the only reason I would leave the house. And other days it was the only motivation for getting out of bed. My friend didn’t just gift me the membership and training sessions though, she made sure I went by scheduling workout dates with me, giving me accountability and community when I was the most lonely and the most unmotivated. She knew how important it was to my overall healing and to this day I treasure the memory of those workouts and the healing that took place as a result. I can speak from first-hand experience how exercise was beneficial to my body AND my soul while grieving the loss of my son.
3 BENEFITS OF EXERCISE (while grieving)
- You have something to look forward to. You have probably experienced and understand the sense of hopelessness and despair that can settle in your hearts when you are grieving. Exercise gives you a small thing to look forward to each day.
- You will experience more joy. Those endorphins are a real thing. Not just a trick to get you on a treadmill. And the more regularly you get your body moving, the more endorphins your body will produce and subsequently eliminate those ‘stress hormones’ and the negative affects they are having on your body and brain.
- You will experience more mental stability. As those endorphins knock out the stress hormones your brain will begin working again. You will experience less forgetfulness and a better ability to focus. As that happens you will be able to better process how you are feeling and what you are experiencing day to day in a way that feels less erratic and crazy. Side Note: This is me telling you: “You are not crazy. You are grieving.” And exercise is one tool that will help you find physical healing that will result in mental and emotional healing as well.
3 TIPS FOR MAKING EXERCISE HAPPEN (while grieving)
- Find a friend. So many people around you want to have a tangible way to love you through your grief and they don’t always know how. Give them an opportunity to love you and help you heal while offering accountability and community. If you would rather workout alone, I would still recommend bringing a friend in on your plan for the sake of helping you stick to it.
- Make a plan. Just make a decision about what kind of exercise you will do and when. Be realistic with what you can do and when you’ll be able to do it. Look at your current normal rhythms and determine where a 20 minute workout might fit in every day.
- Start small. Don’t be overly ambitious. If you have never gotten up at 5am before this is most likely not the time to do that. If you have never run a mile before this might not be the best time to decide to run a marathon. The good news though is that you don’t have to do intense workouts for lengthy amounts of time in order to experience the benefits mentioned above. In fact, research has shown that moderate exercise every day for 20 minutes or so will have a better impact than doing an intense workout a few times a week. So, just get your body moving and don’t overcomplicate it. Start small. A 20 minute walk with a friend (or alone) will do your heart and body so much good.
ADDITIONAL HELPFUL ARTICLES & RESOURCES
- Exercising to Relax, by Harvard Health
- Your Health & Grief by Psych Central
- Grief & Exercise, by What’s Your Grief
- You & Your Hormones, Cortisol