With the Queen’s funeral tomorrow and the shocking discoveries of graves once again in Ukraine, grief seems to be surrounding us. On the news. On Social Media and our conversations with family and friends. And rightly so. Grief is something we will all experience at some points in our lives – sometimes from a short sadness with a breakup, or far deeper with the loss of a loved one – and the gaping hole in our lives. Like the story the “Bear Hunt” – you can’t go under it, you can’t go over it, you have to go through it.
If you have read any of my posts before, then you will probably know at this point, I will bring up the value of moving. But stick with me. These are some interesting facts about how grief affects us, and how exercise can help us to manage the acute symptoms that will help us get through the process.
In a systematic review in 2021, following the huge impact of Covid on our population, (Williams, 2021) noted that physical activity not only helped to relieve anxiety (acute and long-term) and depression, but also provided a sense of freedom to express emotion, provided a distraction and a short term escape from grief and enriched our social support. Grief can manifest itself in many ways – insomnia, fatigue, physical pain, anxiety, panic attacks, loneliness, emptiness are some of the symptoms, but there are so many, and each comes about from who we are and how we lost the person that we loved.
I have found that the recent events have also triggered a reaction and memory of the loss of your close person as we see the intimate details of the Queen’s funeral, and constant news items about the sadness that is being expressed. Remembering your own loss at this time can bring back the symptoms of grief, or maybe unlock some of the feelings that you kept locked in at the time. Allow this time to happen, and your feelings uncovered to help the healing process – but find some friendship and support for this too.
Walking has been shown to allow us to examine our thoughts whilst we are distracted by the rhythm and the pace of our steps, and the perspective of the surrounding views as we walk. The length and time of your walk in this instance, is up to you, with research indicating that the grief the person is feeling determines the energy and commitment to walking. But any time spent in nature, breathing deeply, and listening to the sounds (have a look at some of the research around Shirin Yoku for more information), helps us to manage anxiety and stress.
On the flip side, there is some evidence to show how “risk taking” can also be a great way to manage our grief – whether that is going mountain/rock climbing, downhill cycling or anything that gives you an adrenaline rush, then this sparks that “space” or time to rest your brain from grieving. If you do not want to risk an accident, then you can get similar effect by taking part in a high intensity workout such as HIIT or boxing etc.
Finally, there then are the gentler exercises such as Pilates and Yoga, where you can have peace of mind, focus on breath, and stretch out the tensions that gather in our bodies. Find time to do this in the quiet, and don’t worry if the movement stretches and releases the emotions that are stuck inside you. This type of exercise, where we move the diaphragm, allows us to unlock a little. Allow your body to move slowly and gently into positions and concentrate on your deep breathing as you follow the routines or positions.
Exercise is well-documented to support mental health and well-being. However, trying to think about doing this when you feel sad and low is often the challenge. Allow yourself time to move, find a friend to take you out for a walk, sit in the garden and let the sun play on your face. Small things to help you cope. These are, of course, snippets of advice from an exercise practitioner, and not a medical person. Please seek professional help if you are struggling, because of this above helps with depression and anxiety, but many not address the deeper issues of chronic grief.
If you feel little bit broken at the moment – a hug to you. I wish you well on your journey. Find time to support your mental and physical health with exercise mediation to ease your path. Find expert health. Find a friend. Find time. Find a way.
 Williams, J., Shorter, G.W., Howlett, N. et al. Can Physical Activity Support Grief Outcomes in Individuals Who Have Been Bereaved? A Systematic Review. Sports Med - Open 7, 26 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40798-021-00311-z