9 Ways Exercise Helps With Grief

Dear Brothers & Sisters in loss,

I know you’ll understand me when I tell you I felt like locking myself in my room and sleeping away the day. I was exhausted mentally, physically and emotionally. Completely exhausted. I couldn’t understand how the world was going on without my little boy, but it was. Deep down I knew I needed to figure this out. I needed to pick myself up out of my bed and learn to live with this life I was left with… I felt lost, unsure, alone and I really didn’t know how to do this.

But, I had to….

Soon my two living children would be home. I needed to be their mom. I had always been their dock… the one safe place they can come to as they learn and grow up in this great big world. I was their mommy, their home… , but I wasn’t that same safe place. I knew it. I could barely keep my head above water. How could I be their dock?

My husband went to work shortly after the funeral. It gave him a sense of normalcy in our world that had recently been turned upside down. I didn’t have work to go back to. Mac, our stillborn, was our third child. It made sense to us that I would stay home because childcare was so expensive. So, there I was… no work and no baby to take care of. I was lost.

But, the world didn’t stop for me no matter how many tears I cried.

Have you been there?

Can you understand where I was?

I though so.

I knew there was nobody coming to save me from this pain. The truth is nobody could rescue me. It wasn’t their place. It wasn’t their job. This was my pain, my grief and I had the ability to rescue myself.

That’s when I knew I needed to do something to get a little of “me” back. I couldn’t make sense of his loss, but I didn’t have to in order to get myself together…if even just a little. I had to, my kids needed me- ALL of them.

Maybe our stories are different, but we share a loss. We share grief. We share the unspoken understanding that when you have a significant loss it can turn your world upside down. It not only robs you of your precious loved one, but takes all your energy, motivation, understanding and confidence as well…

But my dear brothers and sisters, that’s not where it stops… This is where it begins.

I want us to also share the ability to grow from our grief. I want nothing more than for you to learn how to live with your grief in a way that is both healthy and honors the love you will always have for your loved one. Please allow me to share with you something that significantly helped me in getting a little of “me” back. Let me help you take that first step towards better health while you grieve.


We ALL know exercise (no matter what type) is beneficial, right? How could we not.. it is pounded into our heads from every direction. Doctors, nurses (and maybe even your dentists), friends and our family are always telling us to stay active. Oh, and don’t get me started on social media… If I had a penny for every exercise/fitness post I saw on social media you wouldn’t be reading this… because I don’t think I’d have internet on my very own private island 😉 But seriously, it is something we all know. Exercise is good for us. You know that. I know that. Everyone knows. There is not one person that wouldn’t benefit from moving their bodies.

But.. Did you know how it could help us especially if we are grieving?

Studies prove exercise or getting your body in moving has a big impact on how we cope with grief. It goes much deeper than physical benefits and THIS is where we, grievers, benefit.

Here are 10 ways exercise helps us when we are grieving…

1. Puts the control back in your hands.

This was probably my main motivator when it came for me to start exercising after I lost my son. My world was falling apart. My days were nothing like I had planned, hoped and dreamed about. This before and after my son’s death was a drastic difference. I felt like I lost all control. My workout was one of the few moments during my day where I could focus on something besides my pain and the expectations I placed on myself. All I had to do was move my body. No finding the energy to smile, have a conversation, make lunch or do anything… This was MY time. All I needed to focus on was picking up that weight. I had control of the weights and how I moved it in those beautiful 30 minutes.

2. Increased Focus

Was it just me or did you walk around (more like sit around if I’m being honest) in a grief haze? It felt like I was there, but not 100% present. Things would be missed… conversations and day to day responsibilities. Everything was right in front of me, but it felt so far away at times.

Exercise helped with this! It gets you out, changes the scene and allows you to refocus for a moment. Just looking at something different helped me tremendously.

AND… (the science stuff)

When you exercise the blood flow to your brain increases So, you see, there is actual physical benefit to exercise… not just a mindset shift here. The increased blood flow to your brain helps with the grief “brain fog” and increases overall cognitive function. It isn’t “all in your head;” it is an honest to goodness physical response.

3. Improved mood

Think back to a time when you finished a good workout. Did you feel uplifted and could tackle anything? I know that’s how I feel!

We’ve all heard about endorphins, right?  Or at the very least, you’ve heard this quote made famous by one of my favorite actresses, Reese Witherspoon: “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy.” ~ Elle Woods, Legally Blonde (She plays an attorney, so…  you know, it has to be true.)

Well, it turns out there is a little science behind this benefit too…

Exercise triggers the release of neurotransmitters such as, endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, and GABA. Neurotransmitters impact our mood and help us feel happy and good.

4. Sleep


Sleep is SO important. Good quality sleep is the foundation to a healthy body, in my opinion.

In fact, it is such a priority to me, I start here first with my clients. We address ways to create healthier sleep habits first. One way I do this with them is through exercise.

The National Sleep Foundation states, “after 4-24 weeks of exercise, adults with insomnia fell asleep more quickly, slept slightly longer, and had better sleep quality than before they began exercising.”

We (grievers) don’t sleep well, do we? It’s ironic, actually. I wanted nothing more than to sleep away the time, but when it came down to it my mind wouldn’t shut down long enough to let me sleep. We NEED sleep. It’s a human necessity. When we don’t get it our body suffers consequences. It leads to “poor quality of life” according to The National Sleep Foundation. (Ugh.)

When we grieve our lack of sleep only intensifies our grief by decreasing our ability to cope in a healthy manner.

I understand… Sleep can also be difficult for us because our minds race. We may experience flash backs or sit and think about the “what-ifs” or “should-have-beens” (which by the way, is something exercise helps with too. So, keep reading). I don’t know about you, but I wanted all the help I could get with sleep and in a non-pill form.

Exercise helps and you don’t have to exhaust yourself to benefit. A brisk walk, bike ride or even yoga is usually just enough.

5. Stress and anxiety

Stress, ugly stress… It isn’t avoidable in life. It is literally in everyday of our normal lives in some form or another. Add in a loss and it not only intensifies; It invites it’s friend anxiety along for the fun too. Our bodies feel this. I remember in the first few days, weeks and even months after losing my son I felt so much tension. My body physically ached.

Exercise helped. I know, it sounds counter intuitive, right? Exercise can make our bodies sore. It did, I was sore, especially at first. However, it relieved so much tension and stress too. It was a place where my body could “scream” through the exercise of my choice. Most days, it was through lifting heavy weights. I remember leaving the gym feeling as if I was leaving the bottled up stress and anxiety on the gym floor. I didn’t feel the “heaviness” I walked in with.

Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “Although the effects may be temporary, they demonstrate that a brisk walk or other simple activity can deliver several hours of relief, similar to taking an aspirin for a headache. Science has also provided some evidence that physically active people have lower rates of anxiety and depression than sedentary people. Exercise may improve the mental health by helping the brain cope better with stress.”

6. Increased energy

Exercise more = more energy…..

I know, it seems a little counter intuitive, right? It’s true…

Takes me right back to science class. Newtons law of motion (one of them 😉 ) to be exact. Newton said an object in motion will stay in motion unless acted upon by a equal or stronger force. So, as long as we put one foot in front of the other and don’t allow grief to be a “stronger force” we can do it!

Exercise helps us more than a nap when it comes to boosting our energy levels.

Researchers indicate that the more people exercise, the more they are protected from feelings of fatigue and low energy.

Remaining sedentary will also make you remain tired. The best thing to do to boost your energy (and we need energy desperately when grieving) is to get up and get your body moving with some sort of physical activity.

I know you get it. The hard part is getting started when we feel like shutting doing nothing more than shutting the world out. (I’ll be sharing some helpful tips on how to get up and get moving as well! Keep reading!)

7. Gain strength

Because muscle.

No, seriously…

Exercise builds strength by building muscle and it doesn’t have to be bodybuilder style muscles here, my brothers and sisters. Strength comes in all different shapes and sizes. I’ve worked with countless women throughout my career as a trainer and can tell you with 100% confidence even the smallest muscles can produce noticeable strength.

One of the most rewarding parts of my job… when a client (who once kept their head down during training) realizes they are stronger than when they started. Once they realize they have improved from where they once were by picking up heavier weights, running a little faster, walking on a higher incline, going to their toes instead of their knees or finally do an unassisted pull-up… the joy that comes from that sense of accomplishment is something to behold. (warm and fuzzy feeling over load for me)

Strength is empowering.

It can empower us during grief.

That one small goal may seem silly and you may even roll your eye at it, but working towards it… working on building strength does three things.

  1. It creates a healthier, stronger and more capable body.
  2. Gives you something to work towards and it has NOTHING to do with grief. It is a refreshing change of pace if you allow it to be.
  3. It, much like grieving, is something that only you can do. This body is your to make stronger, just as this grief is yours tend to and grow from.

8. Motivation

Exercise generates energy…

When we begin to move our bodies, we start feeling differently, and we’re able to do more. We want to do more.

When we exercise there’s a series of things that happen. As we get up onto our feet and begin to move and exercise, there’s a general bodily awakening that happens. Multiple systems (of the body) are involved– everything from cardiovascular activation to endocrine changes in the brain, metabolic and hormonal changes and shifts. It’s truly amazing!

The thing is… moving our bodies feels good. We end up craving more movement because of how good it make us feel. This craving to feel good and do more expands and overflows into our daily activities and not just exercise.

It isn’t easy to get started, but once we do, it gets easier. Promise.

Here’s a helpful tip from me about motivation: Too often people starting a workout program look for motivation before they start… they think motivation is the answer to the momentum needed to continue. I think they have it wrong, momentum creates our motivation. We just need to start and follow through. Exercise gifts us with motivation when we are grieving.

9. Socially

Talking to many of my sisters in loss during our coaching, I often hear the words: isolated, lonely and alone. They use these when describing how they felt or feel after loss. Grief does have a way of isolating us… if we let it.

I think back to those first few times I ventured out of the house after I lost Mac. I was almost paralyzed in fear. I was terrified someone would recognize me and ask if I had my baby. I DID feel isolated. I DID feel alone and lonely. This was something I wanted to change, but wasn’t sure how or if I had the motivation to socialize.

Enter exercise….

Walking into the gym was hard. I’ve recognized this a million times and will continue to do so because it is hard to step out of our comfort zone even if it is for something that we know will benefit us. One of the biggest benefits it had for me was giving me a social life. I would have been content keeping to myself, minding my own and grieving, BUT I couldn’t. It started as a hello and over time turned into more. I made friend…. that LOVED to workout as much as I did and they helped me stay on track. They would workout with me, meet me at the gym or for a walk. It was an unexpected wonderful benefit of exercise!

It’s not just me either… Here are a few things my fellow sisters in loss have said:

“I joined a new running group and forced myself to run with people and be social. I have many new wonderful friends because of it.”

“Creating friendships and having the support of others ended up being one of my most cherished gifts from starting to exercise.”

“I didn’t know I needed wanted social life after my loss until I started exercising with the group. It has been such blessing to me in many ways.”

BONUS! Hey, couldn’t help it. This one HAD to be included!

10. Confidence builder

I saved the best for last. This was so  unexpected. How exactly does exercise boost your confidence when you are grieving? Oh, let me tell you…

If I could give you three words to describe how I felt when I started exercising… back at day one, here is what they’d be:

  1. unsure
  2. scared/fearful
  3. overwhelmed
  4. lonely
  5. unconfident
  6. uneasy
  7. irritated
  8. sad
  9. angry
  10. jealous
  11. uninterested
  12. ashamed

Okay, that was more than three, but important for you to know. I walked into that gym at the height of my grief. I was a mess, but I knew I had to do this for me, for my family and in many ways, for my son, Mac. My body had just delivered a little boy I didn’t get to bring home…. it failed me. It was weak. I was weak. I had always turned to fitness to relieve stress and help me, but I wasn’t sure about it this time.

That first workout was hard. The second was hard too. Over time, they got easier- physically, mentally and emotionally. Before long I was dragging my feet little less, had less breakdowns, smiled a little more… AND before I knew it, I actually looked forward to my workouts. I was talking, engaging in conversations and working out WITH others and not just beside them. I made friends, great friends. Then it hit me… I wasn’t as scared anymore. I’m not talking about the workouts… (my trainer made sure the workouts scared me at times to keep me on my toes and I loved it. haha!) I’m talking about the unexpected questions.. “How many kids do you have?” “Did someone tell me you JUST had a baby?” “Are you having more kids?” or seeing another baby that was around Mac’s age… I wasn’t scared. Something inside me was saying ‘You’ve got this, Nat.’ It was AMAZING!

And just like that…

It was as if someone turned on the lights for me. I suddenly realized I was STRONG and CAPABLE. I realized I not only trusted my body again, but I trusted myself. I stood confident on my own two feet. I no longer looked across the gym and was jealous of that feeling others had… you know, the one where they HAVE all their kids and they have NO IDEA what this pain feels like. I was no longer ashamed I lost a baby. I was strong enough to realize it was nothing I had done…and I may never have that answer as to why it happened, but I was going to be ok without it.

I was no longer overwhelmed. I put one foot in front of the other and made it through each moment. I wan’t scared, lonely, irritated and uninterested any longer. Sure, I was sad… in moments, but that sadness didn’t take hold of me as it previously did.

I felt strong physically and emotionally.

My list changed! Not one of those 12 words above applied to me now.

If you were to ask me again, this would be my core list:

  1. strong
  3. capable
  4. healthy
  5. happy
  6. joyful
  7. hopeful

So, yes, exercise helps us when we are grieving. It does build confidence.

Listen my friends, when you’re grieving (especially if you are in the thick of it), you have no energy. When you think about exercising, it seems the last thing you’d find fun AND you have no energy to try it. I suggest starting out very minimally, just getting up and walking a few steps or just down the street. Set your timer for two minutes.

Remember to be kind to yourself.


Remember my motto: Allow yourself grace when needed and dig for that grit when you can.

I want to close with one of my biggest tips to help you get started exercising.

  1. Set an intension to move every day.

Don’t over think it. Don’t create an elaborate plan that alone drains all your energy. Simply move your body in some way.. everyday.

Here are just a few exercise/activity suggestions:

  1. Take a walk- set your timer for 2 minutes and walk. Walk around your block. Take your dog for a short walk. Call a friend and ask they accompany you. Put your headphones on and listen to your favorite uplifting music or good book. (My go-to book for these walks was Brene Brown’s Rising Strong…  so good!) 
  2. Stretch- don’t think yoga here. Simply get up and stretch. This alone can increase your body’s blood flow and help you!
  3. Yoga- find a you tube channel you like and hit play. Again, set your intentions for a few minutes at a time.
  4. Hike- one of my favorites. Go be with nature, take in the trees, the birds and all God’s beauty. Fresh air and activity = BONUS!