Exercising for grief

Sobbing in spin, screaming while strength training: how we’re finally starting to use fitness for grief

Posted by for Wellbeing

Grieving is the process of learning to cope with the unimaginable, but simply talking about it used to be taboo. Now fitness is finally being recognised as a remedy for grief, and trainers are helping to break the stigma by opening up about their personal pain.

Here’s a true story that feels like it could only happen in 2021. It’s a Wednesday morning spin class at a central London studio. In the middle of the session, the instructor mentions she’s grieving her friend, a fellow coach who died earlier that month. Dedicating a song to him, she’s overcome by emotion. She starts sobbing as strobe lights flash overhead and sweaty bodies pedal furiously around her.

My friend who attended said spin class found it all a bit disarming, but as someone who’s been far too intimate with grief for most of my adult life (I lost my mother to suicide when I was 23), I think it’s a sign of our changing attitudes when it comes to discussing death. I only wish I could be as brave as that instructor, opening up to a room full of strangers.

Not only am I hopeful that the stigma of talking about grief is starting to disappear, I also believe that exercise is a key part of the grief conversation. Fitness instructors are leading the way by sharing their own experiences, and we’re finally recognising exercise as a valid tool in supporting bereavement.

Catherine Betley, founder and managing director of GriefChat, tells Stylist that in 20 years of working in bereavement care, she’s never seen so many organisations campaigning to put grief on the public agenda.

“I just think it’s part of a whole sort of shift towards destigmatising people who are grieving and bringing them into visibility and the practical stuff that helps people get back on some kind of even keel,” she explains.

For the better part of 15 years, I have kept quiet about my grief. The embarrassing and painful physical symptoms, the isolation, the shame.

Last year, I was finally ready to ‘sit’ in my grief. Instead of a chair, I used a yoga mat. I hopped on a stationary bike. I picked up some weights. Exercise has given me the tools I need to scream, sob and process all the big, overwhelming feelings. 

How online fitness communities and trainers are allowing us to grieve privately

The power of exercise as a tool for processing grief is nothing new, although it does feel more people are starting to open up about their experiences. Running, in particular, offers a sense of purpose, nature’s calming benefits and a way to raise money and awareness for a meaningful cause.

While running and yoga are probably the most talked-about in terms of mental health benefits, exercise of any kind can prove therapeutic (weight lifting helped writer Poorna Bell find peace and order in the tumult of grief).  

Peloton instructor Selena Samuela found renewed purpose through exercise while grieving the death of her partner of four years, Lexi. “It’s so much of how I made my way through my own experience with grief. Moving my body and fitness had so much to do with it,” she tells Stylist, explaining that running and boxing in particular offered meditative and empowering benefits.

Samuela’s candour about her grief journey is inspiring, and informs her approach as a fitness coach. She’s not the only Peloton instructor who’s mourning someone and willing to talk about that pain during a workout (occasionally, instructors do cry while teaching).

Members aren’t immune to emotional outbursts, either (see the various Reddit threads about uncontrollably crying during a Peloton bike ride). Many enjoy the sense of release that comes from letting it all out (the tears and the sweat), without having to answer any awkward questions that might come up in a communal gym setting.

There’s no doubt social media has changed how we express grief in online communities. The popularity of home fitness platforms like Stylist’s Strong Women Training Club and Peloton have created yet more digital spaces where trauma can be processed at the intersection of exercise and community.

“You still have the community and the support. You know someone has their hand on your back, but you have the privacy of ugly crying. You can have snot running down your nose and be running on the treadmill. You’re not self-conscious,” says Samuela, who used to seek out darkened fitness studios in her early days of grief in order to cry in the comfort of relative anonymity.

In the real world, exercise has become part of various grief group meet-ups (see Cruse’s Walk & Talk or Grief Encounter’s annual Forget-Me-Not walk). While not explicitly for grief, parkrun has also helped bereaved people around the globe connect and heal through exercise and nature.

“What grieving people need is community. Parkrun has been really successful in bringing people together who wouldn’t have necessarily met, who have some commonality that might just be grief,” says GriefChat’s Betley.

Prescribing exercise for grief

Traditional ways of dealing with grief have their limitations, so holistic, non-clinical approaches are increasingly being explored.

Take social prescribing, which links individuals up with local groups and includes community and therapeutic support, meditation and exercise like fishing and running. In 2022, Sport England’s This Girl Can classes will offer another example of this as a non-judgemental option for women looking to get back into exercise for its mental and physical benefits.

“It’s about creative alternatives to what we’ve done traditionally, which is go to the GP, get some antidepressants, maybe get a therapist, maybe join a grief group. They are not sufficient options for the number of people that are bereaved anymore. Grief and depression look the same but they’re not the same. You can’t fix grief with antidepressants,” Betley explains.

Zakiya Bishton, founder of Mindwalk Yoga, sees socially prescribed patients in her London studio. Her yoga therapy practice is centred on anxiety, trauma, PTSD, insomnia and grief.

“When we’re going through very difficult times it can often feel like there is nothing else other than very heavy, hard, challenging emotions. When we apply a therapeutic approach to yoga, it’s about finding safety, comforting your body, being supported,” she explains. Using cushions, pillows and blankets, students can access the restorative poses she teaches anytime, anywhere (even in bed).

It’s worth remembering that everyone’s grief is different and you can only move at your own speed when it comes to processing it (even if that takes a decade and a half, like it did in my case).

“If you’re really deep in the throes of grief, I think a lot of people feel hopelessness in those moments. The first thing to remember is that your story isn’t over yet. There’s a new beginning. The process of grieving was a little bit of a blessing when I finally allowed myself to do it,” Samuela says. 

If you’re struggling with grief, contact Cruse Bereavement Support’s helpline on 0808 808 1677, or the mental health charity Mind.

For more fitness features, mindful workouts and healthy recipes, check out the rest of the Strong Women Training Club.

Images: Getty

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