Grief & Exercise: Does It Really Matter

In the depths of grief, it’s often easy to retreat to your couch and spend hours watching television. There’s a place for that—but sitcom marathons shouldn’t prevent you from getting out and moving your body. 

Exercise is a key part of taking care of ourselves physically, which is crucial after a significant loss. More importantly, there is a concrete link between exercise, improved mood, and reduced depression. 

It’s All About Endorphins

Scientifically speaking, exercise boosts mood because of endorphins, a natural chemical that is released during exercise. Endorphins reduce our experience of pain, interacting with the same receptors in the brain as morphine or heroin. You might have heard about a “runners’ high”—it is in fact very similar, chemically, from being high on opioids (but without the other nasty side effects). 

The endorphin release is what makes exercise such a powerful tool when it comes to handling grief. In addition to a totally natural euphoria, endorphins and exercise, in general, has also been proven to help alleviate some common grief symptoms, such as problems sleeping, anxiety and low self-esteem. 

Of course, exercise also has concrete benefits for your physical health. It’s not uncommon for grief to manifest itself through illness—so much so that widows are at significantly higher risk of death from all causes in the year after their spouse dies. So the physical benefits of exercise shouldn’t be ignored, either. 

Establishing an Exercise Routine

It’s not news that exercise is good for you—but that doesn’t mean that everyone does it. If you haven’t been much of an athlete before, motivating yourself can be particularly challenging if you’re already struggling with grief. You might also be juggling increased family responsibilities and be unsure how to fit exercise into your schedule. Here are some strategies to consider if you don’t know where to start. 

Choose something you enjoy. There are thousands of types of exercise, from running to yoga to dance classes. There’s no reason to force yourself to do an activity that isn’t fun—find something you will look forward to and you’re more likely to follow through. 

Choose something you can afford. Most discussions about exercise focus on joining a gym—but gyms can be expensive. Financial struggles can be a part of the loss, and there is no reason to increase your financial stress in the name of exercise. Look for options that are free or low-cost—there are plenty. 

Schedule it. Studies have shown that people are more likely to exercise if they have a set time dedicated to exercise. 

Get a partner. If there is someone you can exercise with, you’ll both be more likely to stick to your routine and can simultaneously combat the social isolation that is often associated with grief. 

Working with a counselor can help you identify the right tools to use in your grief journey—and help you work out how to integrate things like exercise into your schedule. Exercise can help you get through the acute stages of grief and build a happier, healthier life in the long-run. Together, we can work on ways to help you follow through and feel as good as possible even when dealing with grief.

Photo by Marion Michele