When I went through a breakup a few years ago, what helped me the most wasn’t ice cream or vodka. It was spinning. When I awoke before dawn during those first raw months with an overwhelming ache in my gut, I somehow managed to drag myself and my misery to a 6:30 a.m. class, and by 7:15 a.m., I felt confident I could get through the rest of the day. Yes, I was pumped on endorphins and Beyoncé. But there was something transformative about all those sprints and climbs. Sweating — at least as far as I could tell — was healing my broken heart.
“The athlete wants to be alone. When they’re running, they’re processing hurt and pain.”
Any athlete knows that intense exercise has emotional benefits that go beyond improved self-esteem. All that alone time on the road or in the pool gives a person time to reflect and ruminate. Feelings get sorted. Decisions get made. It turns out that exercise can be an important coping tool to deal with grief and loss, whether it’s the death of a loved one or the end of a relationship. “More emotive grievers want to keep a journal or be around other people, but the more instrumental griever doesn’t want to talk about it,” explains Vicki Costa, a clinical social worker and grief counselor with Safe Harbor Counseling in Bel Air, Maryland. “The athlete wants to be alone. When they’re running, they’re processing hurt and pain. They raise their heart rate and sweat out the toxins. It’s how the body cries,” she says.
Exercise can also keep you healthy during a stressful time, when your immune system is on the fritz, adds Brian McFarlin, PhD, assistant professor of exercise physiology and nutrition at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas. Even though grief is primarily a psychological reaction to loss, your nervous system still responds as if the event was an attack on the body. “When you’re exposed to a cold virus, you get sick and stay sick for a longer time,” he says. One yearlong study by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle found that people who exercised a half-hour a day were 50 percent less likely to get colds.
Yet McFarlin cautions against too much of a good thing. Other research shows that athletes who exercise to the extreme can end up with worse immunity than sedentary people. “If you’re staying sick, that’s a good clue to aim for moderation.”
Breakdown on the Greenway
“Eventually I started walking. I could still feel the pain, but it certainly had less power.”
For Mike Tarrolly, a 50-year-old Ironman from Nashville, Tennessee, who lost a 62-year-old close friend this year to cancer, he hoped running would give him a break from the sadness. Instead, it brought it to the surface. In the middle a 12-mile run, he started thinking about how he wished he’d had the chance to visit his music buddy one last time and broke down crying. “I was somewhere on the local greenway and felt the frustration taking over my body. I could barely run but kept fighting it. Suddenly I was mad about everything and felt a million regrets,” says Tarrolly, who started running two years and chronicles his training in his blog crushingiron.com. “Eventually I started walking. I could still feel the pain, but it certainly had less power.”
According to Costa, exercise also helps grievers because it gives them a sense of control during a time a when they’re submerged in a stew of symptoms. Those can include short-term memory loss, fatigue, listlessness, inadequacy, aimlessness, shock, numbness, disillusionment and feeling cut off from the world. “Running is purpose,” explains Costa. “It’s a great way to get mastery over something. It restores your equilibrium and gives you the feeling that you’re in charge of your life. You’re pitting the miracle of what you can accomplish with your body against tragedy.”
Exercise can have psychological benefits for those trying to get over a romantic split, too. “When you go through a breakup, you question your self-worth. You ask, ‘How did I end up here? What choices did I make and what things did I ignore that led me here again?’” says Samantha, 31, a teacher from Manhattan.
When she emerged from a breakup black hole of tears, beer, Chinese food and bad TV, she found relief in running. And since she had already signed up for the 2013 New York City Marathon, “I wasn’t going to let this screw up my plans, especially since I didn’t get to run during Hurricane Sandy,” she recalls. She says her training runs for the marathon gave her a sense of pride and built back up her confidence. “The running helped me remember ‘I am big. I am strong,’” she says. ”In the beginning, I thought ‘I may not be able to control all these other things in my life, but I can control this.’ Then it became ‘Well, if I can control that, what else can I take back?’”
When Running Isn’t Enough
While long cleansing runs and rides can help you get through a tough time, exercise is just one of many recommended tools that include good nutrition, adequate sleep, counseling, and perhaps most importantly, social support. It may feel good to get lost in your own head, but exercise can’t be an excuse to withdraw from the world, urges Costa.
“There’s a time to rejoin the community,” Costa says. “We draw positive energy from other people.”
If some extra sweat sessions are the right Rx for you, here are a few tips to make your training as constructive as possible:
Unlike your training regimen, you can’t schedule your grieving milestones.
1. Choose your thoughts wisely.
While many people zone out during workouts, these blocks of time also give you the opportunity to reflect about your loss. “Be intentional about this thinking time,” urges Costa. “Write down three things that are bothering you and try to view them from a different angle to gain a new perspective.” Sample questions: What did I learn? What should I let go? What should I choose to forgive? It’s a more empowering alternative to unhelpful obsessing about what you can’t change.
2. Don’t rush the process.
As much as you’d like to check that box, you have to allow grief to run its course. “There’s nothing you can do to make it go faster,” says Costa. “You were thrown in the water. The stream is taking you where it wants to take you. Float with it. There are moments when you hit whitewater and think you’ll never come up again. Then it’s peaceful, and then you slam up against a rock. But the stream leads to the ocean and takes you to a better place.” Unlike your training regimen, you can’t schedule your grieving milestones.
3. Find meaning in your loss.
Sometimes it just feels good to band together and sweat for a common cause. That can mean participating in a walk or ride to fund research for a disease that afflicted a loved one, or finding another way to support a cause that you hold close to your heart. It will honor their life while encouraging hope and positivity to enter yours.