Lacing up your shoes and heading out for a run might be the last thing on your mind when you're grieving. The couch is calling your name — and after all of the stress, anxiety and tears, all you want to do is plop down and zone out.
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But moving might actually make you feel better when you're dealing with grief. "I think exercise is the best idea," says Nikki Pebbles, CPT, a fitness instructor, life coach and founder of Rock Your Body Method. "When you're going through something so traumatic, the best thing you can do is just move."
That's at least partly because exercise ramps up the body's production of endorphins, which are chemicals in the brain that act like natural mood lifters, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
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But physical activity also reduces your levels of stress hormones (which might be at sky-high levels during times of grief) and can even help lift symptoms of depression, according to a July 2013 review in the American College of Sports Medicine's Health & Fitness Journal — though of course grief and depression are different.
Plus, whether you opt for a tough HIIT session or a gentle walk, getting a workout in may give you something else to focus on, at least temporarily. "When you start to move your body, it's creating a distraction, and it really helps your mind take a step away from what's going on," Pebbles says.
If you're having trouble finding the motivation to move, here are five tips that can help.
1. Rethink Your Definition of Exercise
A period of mourning is not the time to make every workout super intense, Pebbles says. It's perfectly OK to go easier on yourself than you normally would be.
"If you feel like you need to take a rest and not go so high-force because you're grieving, then experience that," Pebbles says.
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2. Build Up Slowly
When moving regularly for five to 10 minutes feels good, try 15 the next day, Pebbles says. "It's creating a really positive environment around movement that's going to motivate you to want to do it more, especially when you don't feel like it or you're going through something."
Following a training plan can help keep you accountable, as can signing up for a race to honor your loved one, such as a 5K benefitting a charity that's meaningful to you or the person you lost. Knowing your efforts contribute to a good cause could bring a welcome sense of purpose to your workouts.
Don't overdo it on the exercise, either. Some people may use exercise as an escape from grief in a less-than-healthy way. If that sounds like it could be you, ask yourself: "Am I doing this to feel mentally better or am I doing this because I don't want to deal with [the grief]?” Pebbles suggests. "If it's the latter, give yourself an exercise limit." Stick to the healthy exercise schedule you kept before your loss for a familiar sense of structure, she says.
3. Stay in Your Comfort Zone
This probably isn't the time to push yourself over extra miles or to try an intimidating new streaming workout app. It's about tapping into what you're comfortable with to give your body what it needs.
Consider your workout personality when deciding what type of movement is most likely to help in this moment. If you love indoor cycling classes, consider oiling up the chain of your old 10-speed in the garage and heading out for an outdoor bike ride, for example. If you're missing your gym buddies, cue up a YouTube workout you can all do together over video chat.
4. Give Yourself Permission
"I think a lot of people who are going through grief feel guilt that they're taking time for themselves and not helping other people," Pebbles says.
But you need to take care of yourself, especially when your world is crumbling around you. "Taking [time to exercise] will make you be a better person to everyone else through the hard time," she says.
5. Set Realistic Expectations
Chances are, you'll feel better after you exercise. But will it heal you completely and help you move on? Probably not.
"It's not going to solve all of your problems, but at least you'll have those minutes to yourself," Pebbles says. And when life seems unbearable, doing something that's within your control and helps you feel better, even if only for 10 minutes, is a step in the right direction.
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