Mental health professionals are too often in the tragic position of knowing exactly what they should do to take care of themselves… yet failing to actually do any of those things (and, of course, then feeling really guilty about it afterward). There have been many moments during my professional career during which I have thought:
Wow, I sure would be a mentally and physically healthier person if I would take my own advice.
Today, I took my own advice (for once!) and rejoined a gym. It has been at least three years since I have set foot in a gym, maybe more. Sure I had a brief stint with P90X during that time… but at around Day 50, I lost my motivation and the box of DVDs has been sitting on my shelf mocking me ever since. I have been pretty down lately and have been indulging in far too much beer, ice cream, and TV. Yep, beer and ice cream… I am feeling lazy and pathetic just typing it. So, today, I am resolving to pull myself together, eat better, drink less, and—dare I say it—exercise.
I realize this is a lot of change to take on at once. I am usually one to endorse baby steps, small changes, and easing in… But desperate times call for desperate measures, my friends. So I am giving myself a swift kick in the butt and going for some radical changes. I know this is a dangerous plan; I realize I could be setting myself up for failure. So, to inspire me on Day One, I reviewed all of our previous advice about eating, drinking, and general self-care.
Because you may have been blocking those posts out of your memory like I was, I have included them below. But don’t stop scrolling just then, because here’s the pièce de résistance: Today’s post is on exercise. I know, it’s ragingly out-of-character for us to be posting about exercise, considering we have been brutally honest that we are fitness failures. But, hey, today is a new day… And perhaps typing out all the reasons I know exercise is good for me will be just the motivation I need. Here’s to hoping!
Now that you’re feeling inspired to get that eating and drinking under control and to take better care of yourself, let’s talk about grief and exercise. Let’s start here: When you are grieving, you probably reeeeeeeally don’t want to exercise. I would love to be one of those people who says:
“Wow, it sure has been a terrible day. I should go for a run.”
…but I’m not, and my hunch is that most of us aren’t. Instead, I typically say:
“Wow, it sure has been a terrible day. I deserve to binge-watch bad TV while drinking a beer and eating a pint of ice cream in bed.”
Now, as we have said before and we will say again, there is nothing wrong with binge-watching TV, drinking beer, and stuffing your face with ice cream every now and then. The problem, my friends, is when our primary coping tool for grief becomes laying on the sofa, watching bad reality shows, eating a pint of Ben and Jerry’s and drinking a beer.
Grief and Exercise
Everyone knows that exercise is good for you. We hear it all the time from pretty much every direction. We know that, physically, it helps with weight loss, cholesterol, blood pressure, energy levels, etc.
But today, we’re going to focus on the relationship between exercise and mood. Many of you have probably heard that exercise can improve mood… But, truth is, the relationship there seems a little fuzzier than the connection to our physical wellbeing. Today, we want to clarify the relationship between exercise and, specifically, grief.
Before we dive in, I have to remind you that knowledge and behavior are, sadly, two very different things. We can understand the (albeit fuzzy) relationship between exercise and mood, and yet still struggle to get ourselves off the couch. That being said, understanding why exercise can help us mentally when we are grieving is important… even if we still need a further kick in the butt to get off the couch!
Here is the quick-and-dirty of exercise and mood that’s important to understand:
In our brain, we release neurotransmitters that impact our mood. For example, serotonin and norepinephrine are two neurotransmitters that help us feel happy and good about the world. Those who struggle with depression (and other psychological disorders like anxiety) often have lower baseline levels of serotonin. As you may have learned if you checked out our food and alcohol posts, one of the reasons humans love food, alcohol, and drugs is because those all boost our serotonin levels… and, in turn, boost our mood. Of course, those things all have some less-than-appealing side effects and consequences. But exercise boosts our serotonin and norepinephrine levels without those nasty side effects. Quite the opposite, in fact: It releases the feel-good neurotransmitters, while getting us back into those old skinny jeans.
If you have heard anything about exercise and mood, it’s probably about endorphins. Endorphins are released in our body when we experience stress, and exercise is actually a form of stress. Now, that may not initially sound like a good thing. Stress is bad, right?
Not necessarily. Because of the endorphin release, the stress of exercise turns out to be a good thing. Endorphins actually reduce our experience of pain by working on our opioid receptors. These are the very same receptors that are impacted by opiate drugs, like morphine and heroin. Endorphins are a natural chemical that can give us the same euphoric and pain-reducing feelings of these drugs, without all those terrible side effects. You may be familiar with this mood-enhancement from the affectionate term “runner’s high.” Endorphins are the reason that we feel so good after we exercise, even when it felt impossible to peel ourselves off the couch.
Turning Knowledge into Action
The reasons that exercise can be a good thing for grievers is probably looking pretty obvious right about now. When life seems bleak and unbearable, a chemical boost to the brain can be a really good thing. The problem, of course, is getting off the sofa to get those feel-good chemicals flowing. Sometimes we assume that we need to get ourselves to the gym and work as hard as we possibly can for hours at a time. This can make finding motivation especially hard (at least for me). The good news is this: When it comes to mood, research has shown that a little-to-moderate exercise every day (20-30 minutes) is actually better for mood than working out extremely hard every other day. For me, a 20-minute brisk walk is a lot more manageable and attainable than an hour of running and weightlifting at the gym. So, take those baby steps and get out for a walk every day!
If you are still struggling to find the motivation, one motivator may be signing up for a run in memory of your loved one. There are 5K runs around the country for pretty much everything (from hospice, to cancer, to suicide, to overdose… to almost anything else you can think of). If there is an illness or cause your loved one was connected to, seek out a run and sign up. Maybe even recruit some friends and family and get on a training schedule together. After all, a workout buddy can be a big help… especially when that workout buddy is also training for a run in memory of your loved one. If you can’t find a run connected to a cause that jumps out, many area non-profits hold runs as fundraisers. Find a run associated with a charity you think your loved one would have appreciated and sign up.
Who knows if my new commitment will stick, or if my running shoes will end up hidden in the back of my closet again soon… But, either way, I invite you to join me if you have been considering turning over your own new leaf. If you are looking for some inspiration from a griever who has actually demonstrated some commitment and results, check out One Fit Widow for fitness and diet tips and tricks, with a splash of grief mixed in.
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