For Some Grievers, Grieving and Exercising is not an Easy Combo (and Why it’s Worth Giving it a Try)
Updated: Jan 10
By Jill S. Cohen, NYC family grief counselor
I know. I know. For the majority (not all, but many many) grievers, the last thing they want to do is EXERCISE. Exercise, in this case, can even mean just getting off the couch. This may sound exaggerated, since many out there say, “I really need to go for a run or hit the gym to release the stress.”
But I’m talking about the others of us, for whom grief creates a heavy lethargy, a lack of energy, and the kind of feeling in which every movement is an effort. Here are some of the thoughts (myths perhaps?) that go along with this kind of thinking.
Calories don’t count in the first year of mourning. I get a “pass” in having to do the right thing, taking care of myself, controlling the feeding of my emotions, and any other of the things that we don’t naturally want to do when it takes effort.
I am entitled to slack off. After all, the worst of all possible things has happened to me, as I am experienced the death of a loved one. So what’s the point or making the extra effort or depriving myself of a possibility of feeling ok for a minute?
I am just too tired to even think about exercising.
I should spend any free time that I have, in the midst of grief. I don’t want people to think I am not mourning, after all.
Ok. You get the point. And I fully "get it". When it’s just too much to think about moving your body, attempting to do so, probably won’t work. Knowing you should budge yourself off the couch and doing it are two different things.
Consider these thoughts instead, maybe? These are not myths. They are facts:
You don’t have to hit the gym in a huge way to feel the effects of exercise. You can walk for a half hour, take a stretch class of strength training class, or part of a Zumba class. Just do something. At first, you’ll be forcing yourself, complaining every step of the way. But after a time or two, you’ll admit you actually feel just a little bit better moving your body, breathing, stretching, feeling something other than the pain in your heart. If you’re focused enough on your activity, you may even be able to let your thoughts and sadness take a mini-break while you’re exercising.
Now may be a good time to try yoga, to settle and ground yourself for an hour. There are yoga classes for beginners and it doesn’t matter if you’re not the most flexible person on the planet.
You may find that it’s good to get out and be in an environment where your grief is not the predominant experience going on around you. You’ll feel outside your “bubble” of grief and sadness for a period of time.
If you get the endorphins going, who knows what a mood lift you may get! Research has shown that, a little moderate exercise every day (20 – 30 min.) is actually better for the mood than a super hard workout every other day.
Exercise boosts serotonin and norepinephrine levels, the neurotransmitters that help make people more positive. People with depression often have lower baseline levels of serotonin. Wouldn’t it be nice to get rid of some of the underlying depression that people often feel during grief?
Your family and friends will stop harassing you about your inactivity. That’s worth something, isn’t it?
Grief doesn’t go away all of a sudden. It changes, slowly. And one way to start to counter the weight of grief is to do something that can make you and your body feel more alive. Slowly, but surely.