How Exercise Can Help You To Cope With Grief

Sunrise yoga class

Grief is the combination of emotions that we feel when a person dies. The specific feelings associated with grief, the process it takes and how long it lasts is individual to each person; and even individually grief will take a different path depending on their relationship with the person that has died. Mechanisms for coping with grief will vary from person to person, however, there are some basic strategies that most people would benefit from trying. Exercise can help you to cope with grief as well as having so many other benefits for both the body and mind.  Exercise can help you to connect with your personal spirituality, providing a focus and a release to connect with your emotions, process your grief and move forward with life following the death of a loved one. 

Exercise and Personal Spirituality 

As a celebrant Steve officiates at funerals; his service goes far beyond conducting a funeral though. He also provides support to families and friends of those that have died. Steve often explores spirituality; a concept that can be thought of as beliefs and practices that help to provide hope, meaning and a sense of purpose. Grief can have a big impact on spiritualty and a person’s sense of purpose. Exercise is one of the practices that can help, Steve identifies the following reasons why fitness is a spiritual practice:

  • You use it for greater happiness and fulfilment.
  • You use your workouts as a time to reflect.
  • You test your will.
  • Your heart is engaged.
  • You expand your comfort zone.
  • You change your karma.
  • You release emotion and energy.
  • You take a moment a breathe.

You can find links to Steve’s social media profiles on the Contact page; he often uses social media to discuss personal spirituality as well as provide information on grief, support and other relevant issues linking to death, funerals, and his role as a celebrant. 

Benefits of Exercise

Older people walking

Physical activity includes aerobic activities such as walking, running, cycling, or swimming, as well as anaerobic activities such as resistance training and yoga that improves flexibility and mindfulness. All types of exercise are well known to have numerous benefits for physical health including: 

  • Lower blood pressure and improved cardiovascular health
  • Assisting weight management
  • Protection from certain diseases such as some types of cancer and diabetes
  • Increasing muscle strength and balance

However, did you also know that there are also a multitude of mental health benefits of participating in regular physical activity. Exercise of all types, but particularly those with a social component, can be a powerful tool in helping to improve mental health and subsequently help support people that are grieving the loss of a loved one. 

Exercise and Grief

General mental health benefits of exercise can help to boost mood and create feelings of positivity within people that are grieving. However, some specific ways in which participating in physical activity can help you to overcome grief are:

  • Identity
  • Focus/distraction
  • Improve sleep
  • Reduce anxiety and depression 
  • Self-care

Physical Activity to Create a New Identity

Rugby players

Depending on the nature of death, the relationship with the person, and whether there was a life-change prior to death for example if you became a carer your identity can become wrapped-up in the person that has died. Following the funeral, it can be a challenge to continue, and work through your new life without the person that has died. Taking up a new form of exercise, or even restarting something you used to do, can help to create a new identity for yourself. Instead of being a carer, or a widow, the person that lost a child or parent, you are now a person that plays as part of a rugby or netball team every week, the person that is working toward squatting or deadlifting their bodyweight three mornings a week in the gym. You may like to take on a challenge for charity; training for a local half marathon, London to Brighton bike ride, or a 3-peaks challenge in aid of a charity that may have supported you or your loved one, can be a powerful way of creating a new identity that helps you to cope through the grieving process. 

Exercise as a distraction from grief

Grief can be all-consuming. Spending too much time thinking about the person that has died can cause a negative spiral for your own well-being. Participating in a form of physical activity that you enjoy provides a distraction and a new focus for that attention. Learning or focusing on the skill of performing the activity gives the mind a break from thinking about the person that has died and creates a new focus. 

Walking outdoors

There is no specific exercise that is of most benefit. Walking in the outdoors is accessible and cost-effective for most people, being outdoors often is enough to boost the mood, and raising the heart rate slightly via walking is also enough provide physical and mental health benefits. However, walking alone, or any activity done alone, may provide time to wallow and think. In which case, a group activity may be more of a distraction. Signing up for a class such as yoga or spin will give you the focus of learning a new skill as well as meeting other people as a distraction. Social interaction can be extremely powerful, if you are finding being alone difficult, then joining a team sport, exercising with a friend, or part of a group may be better for you. 

Reduce Anxiety and Depression 

Physical activity is being increasingly advised by medical professionals to help reduce symptoms of anxiety and mild depression. Anxiety and depression can be a big part of grief, particularly in the case of an unexpected or traumatic death. Exercise is thought to work to combat this by a combination of providing a focus, a sense of purpose, a distraction, and bio-chemical effects through the release of hormones in the body. 

For grief, providing a sense of purpose is a huge benefit from exercise, particularly where there is a social element. Learning a skill such as boxing, getting fitter for example running further, becoming stronger by lifting a heavier weight, or more flexible in your yoga poses provides a sense of achievement, and a desire to continue to better yourself further. In turn, other aspects of your life get altered such as an improved diet, that may lead to physical changes that overall provide a better sense of self, health and wellness. 


In the event of grieving a sudden loss, there may be feelings of resentment. Where a person’s health was poor, or they made a lifestyle choice that resulted in their death this can bring worries and concerns about your own lifestyle and future. By taking up a form of physical activity, this provides a sense of control; you are doing something to enhance your own health and well-being. Feeling as though you are taking control is an essential step to overcoming those worries and fears and can help with the all-consuming feeling of grief. 

Activity Improves Sleep

lady sleeping

Grief can have a big impact on sleep length and quality. Traditionally night is a difficult time, as distractions from the day are gone, you are alone with your thoughts, and sleep can be elusive for those that are grieving. Regular physical activity, particularly outdoor activities, have been shown to vastly improve sleep. Exercise tires the body and the mind, hormones released during activity help to regulate the body’s natural rhythm that subsequently help to improve sleep quality. 

Lack of sleep has a detrimental effect on mental health and can create a vicious cycle where grief gets worse simply due to lack of sleep. By engaging in regular exercise and improving sleep length and quality the negative effects of grief can be somewhat counteracted. 

Physical Activity Helping With Grief

As can be seen there are many benefits of exercise for helping to cope with grief. Taking steps to improve both physical and mental health, as well as new skills learned, and friendships made all contribute toward overcoming the grieving process. Ultimately, exercise may help you to overcome those initial feelings of grief and loss, but provide a sense of purpose, and help you to grow into your new life without the person that has died. Exercise can help you to connect with your personal spirituality providing an improved sense of wellness, health, and positive outlook on the future. Taking on a new form of exercise can help you to cope with grief. You may need to supplement activity with other forms of support such as counselling, Steve can help you to find appropriate support, alternatively contact your GP who will be able to refer you to appropriate local services. 

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