Exercise can Help your Grieving Heart

Author: Jackie Syverson

Have you ever heard of the “runner’s high”? Ever wonder why people who exercise regularly seem to be in a good mood and have an extra bounce in their step? That they never seem to get sick? Is it just that these people have such amazing lives that they feel motivated to exercise and keep in shape? How can we possibly ever hope to achieve that status when we have suffered such an incredible loss? 

Jackie, Ben Stein

The loss of a loved one is a shattering experience. Losing someone to an unexpected military tragedy compounds the effect because it is such a public loss. Suddenly you have lost one of the most important people in your life. Along with the emotional effects of the loss, grief also affects the body physically. The stress of the grief is a continuing process and the body can “forget” to operate the way it should.

In addition to lack of sleep and poor eating patterns due to the loss, the body begins to produce increased amounts of cortisone which affect the thymus gland, leading to a decreased functioning of the immune system. This makes the grieving person more susceptible to illness. It is common to suffer minor infections and illnesses during times of bereavement. Lack of sleep, loss of appetite, and a general sense of feeling ill are common responses to grief and loss. There are many ways to help deal with the symptoms of grief and loss. Trained therapists, support groups, and medications are all good methods to help deal with the loss. But perhaps one of the most commonly overlooked ways to help with the loss of a loved one is physical activity.  

The “runner’s high” is not merely the pleasant feeling that one gets after a good workout. It is an actual physical response that occurs during exercise due to endorphin release. Endorphins are hormones released into the bloodstream from the pituitary gland. These hormones attach themselves to receptors in the brain that affect our perception of well being. The main purpose of endorphins is to help the body withstand and overcome mild to severe exertion. Endorphin release can also help with other physiological functions like appetite suppression, increased immune activity, mood elevation, increased memory retention and learning, and regulation of sleep patterns. Added to this is increased cerebral blood flow and improved muscle relaxation that accompanies physical fitness. Recent research has shown that exercise can be just as effective as antidepressant use, and this effect tends to actually increase over time with regular activity!

Now you may be asking yourself how on earth you are expected to exercise when you can barely get out of bed in the morning. The last thing in the world you want to do is go running or join a fitness class. Just as there is no right or wrong way to grieve, there is no one-size-fits-all exercise program. We must each walk along our own path to move forward and continue on in our personal journeys. The important thing is that you choose an activity that works for you and start with a small goal in mind. Confucius said, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." The purpose of this article is to encourage you to take that first step.  

On the first day of the rest of my life when our commander and chaplain showed up at our door to notify me of my husband Paul’s death, I was a 28-year-old mother with a 7 week old daughter and a 7 year old son. In those first few weeks, people were everywhere. I remember being tough and strong all day long until they would leave and I could retreat into my room and cry for hours. But I woke up one morning and realized I just couldn’t face another day with people all waiting for me to break down. So I told everyone I was going for a walk. They were shocked that I wanted to go alone, and had a very hard time allowing me to leave. Even so, I knew I needed some time to myself, so I opened the door and stepped outside. I cried the whole way, but by the time I got home, I was actually beginning to feel better. It was the first time I had experienced a glimmer of hope in weeks.

I began getting up every morning to go for a walk. Usually I would cry, but I was walking too, so I was getting some exercise. In my ‘other life’ before Paul died, I had been an avid runner. Paul used to train with me and cheer me on during races. I loved crossing the finish line and having him and our son waiting there to hug me. The first day I actually ran, I missed my running partner dearly, but gained a little bit of strength discovering that I could still run even after such a loss. I did what a lot of widows do, and decided to run a marathon. I trained hard and when I crossed the finish line, I experienced the euphoria of my accomplishment and the intense depth of my loss all at the same time. It was a huge turning point for me and I realized I could do anything. I didn’t have to ‘get over’ Paul’s death. I could move forward and accomplish goals without Paul, yet still have a part of him with me in everything I did.  

This set me free to try new things. I took a fitness class called Zumba and was hooked. Something about the music, the dancing, and the happy atmosphere of the class spoke to me. Running was great, but I had never felt the joy I felt after taking a Zumba class. I decided to get certified in group fitness and Zumba and begin to share it with others. For me, Zumba is a stress reliever. I can have a horrible day, but as soon as the music starts, my troubles fade away, at least for an hour!

So does exercise work for everyone? Although running and dancing work well for me, many people find the calming effects of yoga or the core strengthening results of Pilates to be beneficial. Just getting out and walking can work wonders for your mental and physical well being. If you are thinking about beginning an exercise routine, consult with your doctor about the best options for you. Each grief journey is different and each of us has to navigate our own way along the path, but a few minutes of walking, running, or even dancing, can help to make it a little easier to get down that road.  

Jackie SyversonBy Jackie Syverson, BSN, RN: Jackie Syverson is the surviving spouse of MAJ Paul R. Syverson. For several years, she has taught Zumba at the TAPS National Military Survivor Seminar as well as the Good Grief Camp in Washington, DC. She will never forget the pure joy and sense of accomplishment she got watching the kids, as they smiled and danced.