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Sweating Out Sadness: How Exercise Can Help the Grieving Process

Sweating Out

Story at-a-glance -

  • If you’re lost in a seemingly bottomless-pit of shock and disillusionment, exercise brings a sense of purpose and focus that requires nothing more than putting one foot in front of the other
  • Exercise triggers the release of neurotransmitters such as endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, and GABA, which are well-known for their role in mood control
  • Exercise may fight feelings of depression better than antidepressants while relieving feelings of anxiety, pain, insomnia, fatigue, brain fog, and more
  • Exercise can help you to regain your motivation for work and other activities while installing a greater sense of inner calm
  • If you’re currently grieving, you needn’t get bogged down with the details… simply get moving; any activity that appeals to you is worth it – hiking, swimming, yoga, group classes, dancing, and bicycling

By Dr. Mercola

Any significant loss in your life can trigger a powerful grieving process. A death in your family, the loss of a pet, divorce, or even being laid off may send you whirling down a roller-coaster ride of emotions; numbness, anger, denial, despair, isolation, and depression… all are par for the course when you’re grieving.

Adding to its complexity, grief is rarely an orderly process… it may come on suddenly or grow slowly over weeks and months. As you accept the loss, you’ll probably experience extreme lows followed by periods of normalcy, only to be drawn back into sadness by a painful memory or, often, for no reason at all.

When you’re in the throes of such intense emotion, your instinct may be to isolate yourself alone in your bedroom – or it may be to surround yourself with people for distraction. There is no right or wrong process, only what works for you, but there is one activity that seems to offer benefit universally for virtually every grieving person who tries it, and that is exercise.

Exercise Is Therapeutic for Your Mind

When you exercise, particularly at high intensity, it requires intense focus while giving you a sense of control. If you’re lost in a seemingly bottomless-pit of shock and disillusionment, exercise brings a sense of purpose that requires nothing more than putting one foot in front of the other.

Even if you feel you can’t bear to drag yourself out of bed, try to get up and get moving. After a breakup, one 31-year-old woman described the way exercise helped her to take back control of her life:1

“The running helped me remember ‘I am big. I am strong.' …In the beginning, I thought ‘I may not be able to control all these other things in my life, but I can control this.’ Then it became ‘Well, if I can control that, what else can I take back?’”

Part of the reason why exercise makes you feel better is because of its impact on your brain. It will increase blood flow to your brain, for starters, allowing it to almost immediately function better. If you’ve been in a grief-induced fog, this can help you to feel more focused, virtually immediately.

A number of neurotransmitters are also triggered, such as endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, and GABA. Some of these are well-known for their role in mood control. Exercise, in fact, is one of the most effective prevention and treatment strategies for depression.

Exercise May Work Better Than Antidepressants and Helps Induce a State of Calm

Many people succumb to the suggestion of taking antidepressants to overcome grief, not realizing that this temporary Band-Aid may leave you with even more problems to deal with.  Moreover, antidepressants often don’t work. After one year of treatment, 60 percent of patients with depression still feel depressed.2

One study of depressed people by the World Health Organization (WHO) found that, at the end of one year, those who weren't exposed to psychotropic medications enjoyed much better general health and milder depressive symptoms than those who took such drugs.3

Exercise, meanwhile, has been shown to effectively relieve depressive symptoms. For instance, one study found that 30-minute aerobic workouts done three to five times a week cut depressive symptoms by 50 percent in young adults.4

A meta-analysis published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews also found that exercise is moderately more effective than a control intervention for reducing symptoms of depression.5

So you need not rely on drugs to treat symptoms of grief. As explained by James Gordon, MD, a world-renowned expert in using mind-body medicine to heal depression, in our 2008 interview:

"What we're finding in the research on physical exercise is the physical exercise is at least as good as antidepressants for helping people who are depressed. And that's even better for older people, very interesting, even more important for older people.

And physical exercise changes the level of serotonin in your brain. It changes, increases their levels of 'feel good' hormones, the endorphins. And also -- and these are amazing studies -- it can increase the number of cells in your brain, in the region of the brain, called the hippocampus.

…it's very important because sometimes in depression there are fewer of those cells in the hippocampus, but you can actually change your brain with exercise. So it's got to be part of everybody's treatment, everybody's plan."

Has your loss left you feeling more anxious than depressed? Exercise can help here too. A study by Princeton University researchers revealed that exercising stimulates the production of new neurons including those that release the GABA neurotransmitter. GABA inhibits excessive neuronal firing, helping to induce a natural state of calm.6 Commonly prescribed anti-anxiety drugs like Ativan, Xanax, and Valium actually exert a calming effect in this same manner, by boosting the action of GABA. The mood-boosting benefits of exercise occur both immediately after a workout and continue on in the long term.

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Exercise Makes You Feel Better Physically, Too

Grief can lead to many physical symptoms, such as headaches, fatigue, insomnia, worsened aches and pains, loss of appetite, weakness, and more. While helping your mind, exercise can help to relieve many of these physical symptoms. If you’re having trouble sleeping, for example (common among grief-stricken individuals), exercise can help. Research shows that regular exercisers report sleeping better, including falling asleep faster and having a decreased need for sleeping pills, than they did prior to the start of their exercise program.7

If you have pain, which is often made worse during psychological stress, exercise may help to relieve it, while at the same time banishing those potentially overwhelming feelings of fatigue. When you’re under extreme stress, your immune system also takes a hit, leaving you vulnerable to infectious disease, excessive inflammation and more. Here, too, exercise can be invaluable.

When you exercise, you increase your circulation and your blood flow throughout your body. The components of your immune system are also better circulated, which means your immune system has a better chance of finding an illness before it spreads. This includes (but is certainly not limited to) seasonal colds and influenza.

According to a survey by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, exercising vigorously for at least 2.5 hours each week can significantly reduce your chances of catching the flu.8 Other studies have also shown that regular exercise will even help prevent the common cold. In one such study, women who exercised regularly were found to have half the risk of colds of those who didn't work out.9

Get Your Motivation Back

One of the most difficult elements to overcome when you’re grieving is getting back to your daily routine. It may seem overwhelming, but exercise may help you to reclaim your motivation for work and other interests. For instance, research has shown that those who exercised on workdays experienced significantly improved mood on days that they exercised.10 Interestingly, while their mood remained fairly constant even on non-exercise workdays, their sense of inner calm deteriorated on those days. Key findings showed that exercise lead to many improvements in mental focus and motivation:

  • 72 percent had improved time management on exercise days compared to non-exercise days
  • 79 percent reported improved mental and interpersonal performance in exercise days
  • 74 percent said they managed their workload better
  • Those who exercised regularly also reported feeling more than 40 percent more “motivated to work” and scored more than 20 percent higher for concentration and finishing work on time

My 5 Top Exercise Recommendations

If you’re currently grieving, you needn’t get bogged down with the details… simply get moving. Any activity that appeals to you is worth it – hiking, swimming, yoga, group classes, dancing, bicycling… whatever will get you moving is great. Once you have begun to heal, however, I recommend incorporating the following types of exercise into your program in order to truly optimize your results:

  1. Avoid Sitting for More Than 15 Minutes. I usually set a timer for 15 minutes or so while sitting, and then stand up and do one-legged squats, jump squats or lunges when the timer goes off. The key is that you need to be moving all day long, even in non-exercise, or as I now like to call them, intermittent movement activities.
  2. High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT): Compelling and ever-mounting research shows that the ideal form of exercise is short bursts of high-intensity exercise that I call Peak Fitness. Not only does it beat conventional cardio as the most effective and efficient form of exercise, it also provides health benefits you simply cannot get from regular aerobics, such as a tremendous boost in human growth hormone (HGH), aka the "fitness hormone."
  3. Core Exercises: Your body has 29 core muscles located mostly in your back, abdomen, and pelvis. This group of muscles provides the foundation for movement throughout your entire body, and strengthening them can help protect and support your back, make your spine and body less prone to injury, and help you gain greater balance and stability.
  4. Stretching: My favorite type of stretching is active isolated stretches developed by Aaron Mattes. With Active Isolated Stretching, you hold each stretch for only two seconds, which works with your body's natural physiological makeup to improve circulation and increase the elasticity of muscle joints. This technique also allows your body to repair itself and prepare for daily activity. You can also use devices like the Power Plate to help you stretch.
  5. Strength Training: Rounding out your exercise program with a one-set strength training routine will ensure that you're really optimizing the possible health benefits of a regular exercise program. You can also "up" the intensity by slowing it down. For more information about using super slow weight training as a form of high intensity interval exercise, please see my interview with Dr. Doug McGuff.

More Help for Healing Your Grief

While grief can feel insurmountable and become understandably all-consuming, take comfort in the fact that virtually everyone is able to move past the dark feelings. Typically, within six months, you'll begin to see a light at the end of the tunnel. During the grieving process, be gentle with yourself and take steps to support positive mental health. Aside from exercise, other common stress reduction tools with a high success rate include prayer and meditation. The Emotional Freedom Technique, or EFT, is another option; it's a psychological acupressure technique, one I highly recommend to manage stress and optimize your emotional health.

Also, please remember that both your mind and mood are significantly affected by your diet, so don't dismiss that part. While it may not be a miracle cure in and of itself, it can be extremely difficult to achieve sound mental health without the proper foundation of a sound diet to support your emotional healing. Sound sleep is another critical issue, as without it your mental health can suffer and it is difficult to make healing progress.

Exercise will help with this significantly, as mentioned, but you can also find 33 tips to help improve your sleep habits here. Remember, left untended, emotional trauma like losing a loved one can lead to serious health problems down the road -- anything from heart attacks to depression and cancer is possible. If you've been dealing with debilitating feelings of grief that last for a year or more, professional help, including counseling or working with an EFT professional, may be warranted.