Twenty months ago, Tamara Grand experienced every mother’s greatest fear: the loss of a child. Struggling with her grief, the 49-year-old personal trainer turned to what has always been her first line of defense when dealing with stress: exercise. While nothing could fill the hole in Grand’s heart, she has found that movement makes it easier to face her grief and move forward.
Robert Neimeyer, a professor of psychology at the University of Memphis whose research and practice focuses on bereavement, says that while exercise is by no means a panacea, it can play a valuable role in adapting to loss. “It provides both direct benefits to mood and health, and indirect benefits as it forces you out of isolation and into the world,” he says.
Allison Gilbert, a New York-based grief expert and author of “Passed and Present,” says that what grief takes away — energy, joy, focus — exercise can give back. “Death of a loved one involves so many emotional drains,” she explains. “Exercise allows you to come into a space where you can focus on yourself, and helps decrease the pulls on your energy. It restores some of your buoyancy.”
The link between exercise and depression, often a hallmark of grief, is well documented. George Mammen, a University of Toronto PhD candidate, reviewed 25 pieces of research and concluded that moderate exercise can boost mood and help ward off depression in the long term. “Many studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of exercise regimens in improving mood for people who are moderately depressed, effects that are observed within a few weeks of beginning a fitness program,” Neimeyer says.
It doesn’t end with the emotional benefits, either. Neimeyer points out that fitness “pushes back” against the physical health risks of bereavement. “Research suggests that having a regular exercise routine introduces a healthy structure into life, contributing to better nutrition and sleep patterns,” he says. “In this way, exercise promotes positive outcomes and indirectly mitigates the negative impact of grief, such as eating poorly or relying on vices to perk us up or calm us down.”
Numerous studies have looked at exercise as a method for treating depression. Patrick Smith, an associate professor of psychiatry at Duke University and co-author of several studies on the topic including “Is Exercise a Viable Treatment for Depression?,” says, “The short story is that in most head-to-head studies, exercise is equally as effective as antidepressants.”
What Smith and others have not determined is the amount of exercise required to deliver mood benefits. “We used standard cardiac rehab protocols (three times per week at 70-85 percent max heart rate) in our studies, but the jury is out on what certain threshold is necessary for benefits,” he wrote in the abstract of one of his studies. “We do know that neurotransmitters [brain chemicals] are modified via exercise, leading to improved mood.”
That effect is transient, as people experience an exercise-induced surge in brain chemicals associated with improved mood, Smith says. But “once they feel the effects, they are more likely to return for more,” he says, “and that can lead to lasting changes and impacts.”
Over time, though, Smith says, “these same changes appear to have more enduring, systemic effects,” possibly even causing the growth of neurons in a part of the brain that often atrophies in depressed people.
“The key is for patients to find something convenient and enjoyable enough that they will keep at it for the long term,” he explained in an email. “It’s difficult to quantify how long the long-term antidepressant effects of exercise are, but . . . one of the best predictors of continued remission from depression is whether or not participants kept exercising. In almost every study I’ve been a part of, regardless of their initial treatment (medication, exercise, or placebo), when we evaluated participants again six months to a year after ending the intervention, those who either continued or started exercising regularly had the lowest risk of relapsing into depression.”
Just two weeks after losing her 13-year-old daughter to complications from a genetic heart condition, Grand, of British Columbia, forced herself back to the gym. “As a fitness professional, my brain knew that movement would be an important part of my grieving process,” she says.
While exercise was the right idea, doing it in her regular gym where she was well known wasn’t, Grand says. “It was difficult and awkward, and I felt like I was on show,” she says. “People constantly interrupted my workouts to offer condolences and ask questions,” which was emotionally draining.
This was more than Grand was ready for. “After about six weeks of trying this, a friend suggested a change of scenery might be in order,” she says.
She signed on for a small-group strength and conditioning program at another facility. “This worked wonders for me,” she says. “Not only was I anonymous, but all I had to do was show up and do the work.”
Grand spent the next eight months as part of this group. “At the end of that time, I felt ready to go back to my regular gym and take charge of my own workouts again,” she says. “I also returned to teaching group exercise about two months after Clara’s death. The fantastic energy I get from my morning classes has often spilled over and sustained me for the rest of the day.”
Adrienne Langelier, a licensed professional counselor from The Woodlands, Tex., says that emotional stress can make it hard to push yourself physically, but doing so should be seen as an important part of self-care. “I was scheduled to run a marathon when my grandmother was in the hospital dying,” she says. “I wrestled with running it, but in the end, pushing through allowed me to be more present for my family.”
Her passion for running and ability to get out and do it helped with the intense grief she felt when her grandmother died, Langelier says. “Running filled my well instead of emptying it.”
Recognizing and acting upon a desire for movement is key for anyone looking at exercise as an outlet for grief. “You will feel different on different days, so you need to be respectful of that and match your exercise intent to your needs,” Langelier explains.
Gilbert says that ideally, exercise is transformational during grief. “It’s an opportunity to remove stress and gain the capacity to build resilience and make yourself happy.”
In the early stages of grief, it is easy to be passive and let others take care of you. “Through my own personal loss, I learned that it was up to me to move forward and find joy and happiness,” Gilbert says. “As the support goes away, it’s crucial to take the reins and take care of yourself.”
The best type of exercise will vary from one person to the next. Gilbert is a fan of yoga and getting outside. Langelier is drawn to the rhythm of running, and for Grand, strength training is the answer. “If you’re new to exercise, don’t put pressure on yourself to make it a routine,” suggests Gilbert. “Try it once, and if it feels good, go back and do it again.”
Grand says that in the early stages of grief, all she wanted from exercise was escape — “from my house, my family, my friends, acquaintances and my own thoughts. Lifting weights did that for me, and it still does. At the 18-month mark, I’m back to my old routine of teaching and training.”