Can Exercise Help with Grief?

Whether or not you exercise regularly we’re always told to exercise and eat well. It’s pretty standard to hear. 

When you’re suffering the challenges that grief brings with it, you might not feel able to look after yourself as well as you would like. But beyond the general idea that exercise is good for you, can it help with your grief?

Science says it does. And so does the non-science…

Exercise and Your Health in General

We lead increasingly sedentary lifestyles. Exercise is proven to lower the risk of many illnesses, reduce premature death and help keep your mental health in good shape. It can increase your self-esteem, improve your body image and make you feel better about yourself.

Exercise can help you get more sleep (which has a knock-on effect on a person’s mental health), can improve how your brain works, help you focus and concentrate better.

Even simply walking has been found to help with depression. So, think about it like this… even a little exercise is better than none at all.

Just getting outside and moving can be powerful. A hard trudge on the treadmill will be worth every metre; every step in that long walk around town will get you closer to your goal of overcoming the grief you’re experiencing.

And for some who have embraced exercise to help focus and get through the tougher times, it has opened up a new chapter in their lives.

The Endorphins

It’s well known that exercise is thought to release endorphins, the feel good chemical in the brain. But research shows this feeling could actually be produced in the body’s endocannabinoid system (a fairly recently discovered and not fully understood system that regulates different functions).

But there’s more to it than just the ‘high’ from a rush of chemicals.

The Effects of Exercise on Grief

If you’re grieving there’s a lot going on. And in those early days you might have a constant stream of people and support around. You find solace in the funeral service or a visit to the chapel of rest. Maybe you share stories with friends and go through picture albums.

But the reverse can happen too. You can feel overwhelmed, constantly sad, as if the light has gone out. Naturally, there’s nothing wrong with feeling devastation at the loss, but in time you should be able to move forward too.

Exercise can really help.The effects will be both mental and physical.  

Preventing Isolation

Part of the devastation of death is the loss of the sense of the loss of control over anything around you. Getting out and exercising can help give you the feeling that you’re in control of some things again.

When you’re grieving it can be easy to slip into isolation too. Joining a gym can prevent isolation, and a training partner might become a trusted confidante, someone who listens.

Exercise classes give you the perfect opportunity to meet new people (when you’re ready) or at least be around others with a shared aim. It can help you regain a sense of belonging in the wake of a bereavement.

Even just getting out and about outside can have a really positive effect on your mood and outlook.

The Biological Effects of Exercise When You’re Grieving

When we talk about exercise that helps with grieving, we’re talking specifically aerobic, non-aerobic and resistance type exercises, while aerobic often works best.

Stress and Inflammation

One of the benefits of exercise is in helping reduce stress. When you get stressed activity in your sympathetic nervous system increases. Exercise helps to reduce this increased activity but can also help you build resistance in this area, by helping you cope with daily stressors and be less reactive.

In a similar way exercise (particularly aerobic exercise) has been shown to reduce inflammation in the body. There is a school of thought that believes depression comes from an inflammation of the brain.

New Brain Cells

BDNF stands for Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor. It’s a protein that plays a part in neuroprotection, transmission between the synapses and in forming new neurons in your brain. Exercise has been shown to increase resting BDNF levels. So, if you exercise regularly, when you’re not exercising, it’s helping your brain look after itself. Again here, aerobic exercise offers more potential than resistance.

Final Thoughts

It can be hard to even consider an exercise programme if you’ve just lost a loved one. But when you’re grieving remember to be kind to yourself too. That means, if you only feel like going for a ten-minute walk, once a week then that’s fine. It all counts.

You don’t have to run out and join a gym and spend two hours there every morning – unless you want to. The important thing is to remember that exercise will probably help you and even the smallest bit is better than none. As Confucious said: ‘It is better to light one small candle of gratitude than curse the darkness’.