Managing grief with exercise

by Ernie Schramayr

Last month, my parents celebrated their 84th and 88th birthdays. At the same time, they were living with late-stage cancers and seemingly out of treatment options. After managing their diseases for over 15 years, they were fading fast and by the end of the month, both had passed away.

No matter your age or the circumstances, losing a parent is tough. Losing both of your parents in the same month, however, takes grief to a whole new level. I was somewhat prepared for their deaths, but, not really ready to navigate the different stages of grieving that I was about to go through, so I decided to just “keep busy” while the different emotions and physical feelings worked their way through my body and my mind.

One of the things that helped me endure these last few weeks was that I kept moving, sweating and exercising. At a time when it seemed like the world was out of control, going to the gym for a workout or to the trails for a bike ride gave me a sense that I actually did still have control over some things. It also gave me a sense of purpose when I really just felt like going to bed. As a matter of fact, when my sister called me with the news that my dad had passed away, I broke down … and then I worked out. To some it might seem a strange reaction but, to me, it felt comforting. It let me clear my head and gave me the ability to better deal with the actual event. After my workout, I breathed easier and then went home to cry some more and to break the news to the rest of my family.

In the throes of the intense emotions that come with grief, the instinct to isolate and withdraw can be overwhelming. I’ve experienced and given in to those feelings many times over the past month myself. There is no right or wrong way to go through the grieving process, and if being alone feels right, it probably is. There is one thing, however, that does seem to help virtually everyone that is in the process of dealing with emotional pain. That thing is exercise.

Aside from bringing a sense of purpose to your life, exercise triggers “feel good” chemicals in the body that elevate mood and result in increased blood flow, circulation and oxygen uptake. It also helps fight feelings of depression, anxiety, fatigue and even “brain fog,” and has been shown to minimize feelings of physical pain and insomnia and is important in helping to regulate appetite.

Exercising during the grieving process can help one regain motivation for work and other social commitments. While all activity is good and “just getting moving” is the right idea, working out at a high intensity can also move you to consider “What else can I take back?” when trying to get back to your “normal” life.

It goes without saying that I am writing this article based on my own personal experience. Exercising while dealing with intense emotion may not feel right for everyone. The thought of “getting going” might seem overwhelming, but for me it was just what the doctor ordered. Decide for yourself what is the best way forward, but consider the evidence that suggests that engaging in exercise while grieving is one of the best things you can do to make it through the process.

One final thought. While my family and I have been doing well during this trying time, there have been some pretty heavy “moments” and challenging days. I’ve learned to be kind to myself, and if a nap or a slice of pizza or glass of scotch feels right, I’ll skip the gym that day and make plans to pick it up the next. Having a plan and a sense of purpose means that; taking an extra day to mourn won’t turn into a week and then a month and then a year before getting things back on track. In the end, we’re all human and figuring things out as we go to the best of our abilities.

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