Exercise and Nutrition Tips to Ease the Grieving Process

Guidelines for Eating and Exercise When You Experience Loss

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If you have lost a loved one, you know that the grieving process is brutal. Whether the loss was prolonged and expected or traumatic and sudden, the weeks and months following the experience can turn your life upside down. 

Many experts advise moderate exercise and healthy eating for those experiencing loss. Physical activity and nutritious eating habits can reduce stress levels and help you to sleep better at night. But what if you had a regular exercise program in place prior to your loss? And what if you followed a strict diet? Should you resume your pre-loss routine? Some grief experts say that bereavement is a good time to back off a bit.

Does Exercise Always Ease the Grieving Process?

You've probably seen or read articles about how exercise can help boost your mood. Studies have even shown that exercise can help to alleviate symptoms of depression. But grief and depression are two different conditions. In some cases exercise is helpful after the loss of a friend or family member. In others, it is not. 

If you are a Type-A exerciser who followed a strict exercise program prior to the loss of your loved one, you may feel pressure to maintain the routine following his or her death. Toughing it out might be your go-to method of physical and mental pain management. But you may find yourself struggling to reach those goals. Simply put, your body may not cooperate.

In one study about grief, researchers evaluated over 1500 grieving soldiers who were returning from deployment in the Middle East. The most common symptoms experienced by this group of well-trained infantrymen included sleep problems, musculoskeletal pain, fatigue, and back pain.

Given the physical and emotional toll that grief can take on your body, backing off may be the smartest choice. Especially if your exercise routine is vigorous, you may find that completing moderate or easy workouts provides greater benefits. Most importantly, bereavement is a time when you should practice self-care; avoiding judgement or feelings of failure when you can't perform the same way you used to. 

Kelly Grosklags, LICSW, B.C.D., is a Board Certified Diplomat in clinical social work and earned a fellowship in grief counseling from the American Academy of Health Care Professionals. She explains that the body needs time to heal:

"If you were a rigorous exerciser prior to the loss, you are safe to keep doing so if your body agrees. But many of my hardcore exercisers need to scale it back a bit after a major loss as they do not have the stamina. This is not a time to be judging oneself and it's important to listen within. People become more fatigued and can become more accident-prone during grief. Both of these can affect exercise and this is not a time to 'push through it.'"

She goes on to advise that you listen to your body as you move back into exercise. "Watch for increased fatigue, clumsiness, more colds and viruses, and periods where you feel overwhelmed. These all need gentle approaches—not a push through." In her private psychotherapy practice and in her book, A Comforted Heart, she guides clients through the process of easing back into their lives in a gentle way that allows the grief experience to unfold naturally and gradually yield. 

Exercise Tips to Ease Grief

It may be smart to redefine your idea of "exercise" after you experience the loss of a loved one. For some people, a workout doesn't count unless they sweat excessively and burn hundreds of calories. But your body is already suffering enough during the grieving process, so it may be more helpful to define exercise simply as "movement."

Grosklags says that she likes her clients to move their bodies every day. But it doesn't require great effort to count. "Sometimes all one can do it walk to the mailbox and back," she says. "For now, that is okay."

Dr. Gail Gross, Ph.D., Ed.D., M.Ed agrees that movement is important.  Her book, The Only Way Out is Through: A Ten-Step Journey from Grief to Wholeness provides a guide for those who are experiencing loss. She says that having a focus—like exercise— can help alleviate grief symptoms. 

Exercise stimulates endorphins, which help to relieve stress and attitude. In fact, the default network in your brain, which is connected to both introspection and concentration, slows down its activity, when meditating and exercising, thus your focused mind has a more positive attitude. When the mind wanders, it settles on more negative thinking.

Dr. Gross adds that exercise has the capacity to help the body stay in balance, while withstanding the trauma of loss.

Easy forms of exercise might include walking, yoga, tai chi, or other forms of mind/body movement. Group fitness classes may offer the added benefit of support. Being with a close network of friends may also help to keep you consistent with your activity efforts and may be able to provide support during your grieving process. 

Nutrition Tips to Ease Grief

Again, Grosklags advises self care when it comes to diet after the loss of a loved one. She says that some people experience weight loss (due to lack of interest in food) or weight gain (because the foods they tolerate may be higher in calories). But she doesn't recommend a strict diet. She says that reasonable healthy choices are best.

"It is common for people to turn to alcohol to numb, caffeine to get energy, and high carb foods for comfort. All have a very temporary effect."  She offers these tips to feel better while you grieve.

  • No more than one cup of coffee before 10 a.m. (Keep in mind that a single cup of coffee is about 8-10 ounces. Some coffee shops serve drinks that are much larger.)
  • Limited alcohol (one glass per week). A single serving of alcohol is five ounces.
  • Increased intake of protein. Health guidelines suggest that about 10-30 percent of your daily calorie intake should come from protein.
  • Drink plenty of water because crying is common in grief and the body can dehydrate quicker. Caffeine and alcohol also dehydrate, so be cautious.

Dr. Gross says that a simple knowledge of basic foods helps during the grieving process. "For example, berries, including blueberries can help with memory. Foods rich in Vitamin B can help reduce stress and foods such as broccoli, spinach and meat, which are rich in iron, can help stamina, strength, and most importantly your immune system."  She reminds her clients and readers who are experiencing loss that this is the time to focus on the basic things that you can to for yourself. And, at first it includes eating in a balanced way, sleeping and exercising.

A Word From Verywell 

The loss of a dear friend or family member is a devastating experience that takes a drastic toll on your body. As you journey through the process of grieving, be kind to yourself. Try not to set a strict schedule for recovery, but rather give yourself the time you need to heal. In the early days and weeks, you may need all of your energy just to perform simple tasks of daily living. As your energy and your interest return, put performance goals on the back burner and ease back into exercise and healthy eating with the goal of wellness and self-care

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