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…