Grief and Exercise: a guide for those who prefer the couch

Coping with Grief Coping with Grief : Litsa Williams

As a mental health professional one is often in the tragic position of knowing exactly what one should do to take care of oneself, 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 that 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 re-joined a gym.   It has been at least 3 years since I have set foot in a gym, maybe more.  I did have a brief fling with P90X during that time, but at 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 I have been indulging in far too much beer, ice cream, and TV-watching  (mmmm . . . beer and ice cream . . .I am feeling lazy and pathetic just typing about it).   So, I am resolving today 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 (pretty darn good) 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, because below is the pièce de résistance: today’s post on exercise.   I know, this is ragingly out of character for us to be posting about exercise, considering we have been brutally honest that we are work-out failures.  But 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).

exercise grief and comfort eating exercise grief, mindfulness and alcohol exercise alcohol and the brain exercise self care for the rest of us

Alright, now that you are feeling inspired to get that eating and drinking under control and 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 say, “wow, it sure has been a terrible day, I should go for a run”.  But I am not.  My hunch is 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”.   Now, as we have said before and we will say again, there is nothing wrong with binge watch TV and drinking beer every now and then.  The problem, my friends, is when our primary coping ‘skill’ for grief is laying on the sofa watching Bravo eating a pint of Ben and Jerry’s.

Grief and Exercise

Now, everyone knows that exercise is soooo good for you.  We hear it all the time from every direction. We know physically it helps with weight loss, cholesterol, blood pressure. energy levels, etc.  Though many people have heard that exercise can improve our mood, the relationship there seems a little fuzzier than the connection to our physical wellbeing.  Today we want to clarify the relationship between exercise and grief.  Before we dive in, I have to remind you that knowledge and behavior are, sadly, two very different things!   We both understand the relationship between exercise and mood well, and yet we 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 is important to understand: in our brain, we release neurotransmitters that impact our mood. Seratonin and norepinephrine are both neurotransmitters that help us feel happy and good about the world.  Those who struggle with depression 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, in turn boosting our mood.  Of course, those things all have some less-than-appealing side effects and consequences. 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 is probably about endorphins.  Endorphins are released in our body when we experience stress and exercise is a form of stress.  Now, that may not initially sound like a good thing — stress is bad, right?  But 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 “a 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 the motivation especially hard (at least for me).  The good news is, when it comes to mood, research has shown that a little 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 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 everything from hospice to cancer to suicide, overdose, organ donation, Alzheimers, diabetes, heart disease and 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.  Recruit some friends and family and get on a training schedule together.   A workout buddy can be a big help, especially if it is a workout buddy who 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 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.

Leave a comment to let us know about your experience with grief and exercise.  Then sign up to get our posts right to your email!

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15 Comments on "Grief and Exercise: a guide for those who prefer the couch"

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  1. Louisa  August 14, 2014 at 3:35 pm Reply

    Great article! I was an avid exerciser doing Zumba and aiming for 10,000 steps daily. After the loss of my husband, I stepped it up, because I needed those extra endorphins for daily survival. I walked for miles on the beach, and the solitude cleared my head.

  2. Sandra  August 14, 2014 at 3:56 pm Reply

    I enjoy working out, going for a run of course it is hard when you have your head somewhere else, but putting earplugs in some great music on and going for a run alone in the forest is great. Maybe it’s a bit running away from problems, but sometimes being a bit angry and letting it out helps, especially when all the stress with funeral, offices etc. is done. Even when it’s raining running is great when it’s warm enough, feeling the rain on my skin is kind of feeling myself.

    • Litsa  August 17, 2014 at 4:51 pm Reply

      I need to channel you, Sandra! Today my whole body hurts following a couple days of getting back in to working out. I know I just need to keep pushing through, but man, it doesn’t come naturally to me. I feel inspired reading your comment!!

  3. Anthony  September 4, 2015 at 11:05 am Reply

    I just lost my father a few weeks ago, he had COPD. I miss him so much.
    He was a lovely Dad and my best friend. I have always exercised, Karate and loved football just like him. Since he passed away, I can’t do the things I used to do, as the memories that we shared of those interests hurt so much.
    I feel like i’m in limbo without him, i’m 47 but feel like a child again!
    I would do anything to see him again, missing having a cuppa and one of our chats.
    Never forget you Dad, love you so much.

  4. Susan Betz  June 21, 2016 at 6:25 pm Reply

    If you’re out of shape, don’t underestimate a walk after dinner, or a walk with the dog, or gardening. Anything that gets you out of the house and gets your blood pumping is a good thing.

  5. Vanessa  June 24, 2016 at 11:27 pm Reply

    Another timely post, right on time! I’m usually pretty good with exercising, I actually love to go to the gym. The last few weeks though I’ve been in a rush to come home & do nothing. Every so often I have days like this & I usually let it happen but this time it’s been weeks. I forced myself to go to the high school track yesterday & walked some laps while I listened to some podcasts. Felt so much better after. I began to worry about myself. I kind of felt like i was slipping into an abyss so that’s what forced me out of the house yesterday. It’s been 8 months since Mom died & 7 for Dad so I know the road ahead will be bumpy but baby steps & a good kick in your butt is necessary at times

    • Litsa  June 25, 2016 at 10:57 pm Reply

      Vanessa, glad you found this right when you needed it. You make such a good point about the ‘slipping into the abyss’. It sounds like you are taking good steps by pushing yourself. An ‘accountability partner’ may be helpful, to help keep that motivation and resist the urge to sink into the abyss. It is of course okay to take breaks and to sulk sometimes, but it is important to make sure it doesn’t become a problem.

      • Vanessa  June 28, 2016 at 2:57 pm

        I will do that, great idea. My best friend lost her Dad about 7 years ago so I’ve leant on her the most.

  6. David  July 2, 2017 at 3:30 pm Reply

    I lost my daughter about a month ago. Exercise used to be the best antidepressant I could find. Now, my hearts not in it. Used to be a bike ride would energize me, give me some quality think time, and raise my spirit. Now I’m just going through the motions, with no zest, no intensity, nothing but a little fatigue. I don’t notice a change at all.

  7. Teresa L Martinez  July 3, 2017 at 7:50 pm Reply

    This is a wonderful article! I am a grief counselor and run multiple weekly grief groups. I always encourage exercise and know from my own losses how difficult it is to find the inspiration to move. Once I get moving though, I always feel better. Sometimes I find myself singing to myself, sometimes I am crying. Either way it is just what I needed. Thank you ladies! You are both awesome!

  8. Kyrsten  January 11, 2018 at 9:16 pm Reply

    Since my grandfather passed 5 days ago (he served a my father figure), I kept going to the gym and kept up with my normal schedule. But I don’t have the urge to push myself; life seems pointless and overwhelming. Is this what it’s going to be like forever?

  9. christine loeb  May 4, 2018 at 12:14 pm Reply

    I love this topic. (And I really love the graphic!) No doubt about it that movement is part of an upswing in mood. It seems like a maintenance issue in my life- hard to get back when I dip past a certain line.
    But also I think “getting us back into those skinny jeans” and checking out “diet tips and tricks” can lead us back into a different and really bad rabbit hole- so perhaps better to just leave it at you’ll feel better for sure and it will be exciting to keep an eye out for the all of the various things that will happen?
    Thanks for this thoughtful blog.

  10. Donna M  May 4, 2018 at 1:26 pm Reply

    Thank you so much for this post and the photo shows exactly how I feel.Lost my mom who was my best friend and who I adored almost 4 years now.I am a nurse but could not or was too exhausted mentally and physically to take care of myself.And going through menopause at 57 still have periods and hotflashes.Have put on wt so will try to use this info to move my butt.Might do.a few stairs in the hightise building I live in.So now to have someone understand how hard it is when stuck in depression and grief even when you know better.Grateful to all who shared!

  11. Andrea  May 4, 2018 at 9:06 pm Reply

    I fear sharing my deepest despair with those who love me the most. They are unable to process the depth what I am feeling nor do I want them to experience my depth of pain. Seems as if not talking about my son is the easiest way to prevail……for all those but me.

  12. Lisa Richards  May 15, 2018 at 2:34 pm Reply

    great article, although as I observe from the previous comments that some people just lose the will & motivation when they lose someone, possibly because their heart is broken. If this is the case & you are stuck or unable to move on with life because of your loss, have a look at the Grief Recovery Uk website for further help & support.

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