Exercise: helpful or hindering to our healing journey?

Exercise: helpful or hindering to our healing journey?

How does physical activity support us as we move with the continual flow of change and transition? When stressed and exhausted, does movement replenish or deplete health and wellbeing? Does it affect how we recover and heal? 

I had worked in exercise science and the personal training field for 18 years before I experienced the effects of exercise on a healing journey. I had exercised through two pregnancies and it was a stroke at the age of 36 that stopped me in my tracks for a couple of years. In this case, my physical health from a lifetime of exercising had saved my life! The effects of the stroke meant I had to regain my balance and coordination, but I also needed to be mindful of the potential risks of impact and bleeding from blood thinners. Exercise motivated me to keep growing into the new world as a stroke and heart surgery survivor. I took precautions, slowly regained my coordination, and eventually got back into training for sprint triathlons. My age, how the stroke affected my body, and my strength guided my physical activity.    

The year after my stroke and heart surgery!

However, navigating life after the death of my husband at 39 changed everything I understood about not only life but exercising and health as well.  For 15 months, I was able to be his caregiver while also raising our two boys and working part-time. I wouldn’t change being his caregiver for anything else in the world. Caregiving is exhausting and yet some of the most precious moments we shared were during that time. I didn’t care, I was willing to do everything I could to save him and keep my family together. I was running on survival yet still exercising and training private clients. I had no idea how stressful it was to my WHOLE being.

I don’t think I moved very much the first couple of months after he died. When I did, walks with my best friend were perfect for my mind and body. Slowly, about 9 months later I started to run again and then progressed to more intense interval training. That final push of the interval training tipped my body over the edge. I lost all energy and woke up every day exhausted.  As a health educator, I thought I was doing the right thing by eating well and exercising. Instead, the high interval training was depleting my already stressed immune system that was still recovering from the last 2 years of life-altering change.

Life-Altering Change

When I was finally diagnosed with severe adrenal fatigue I was shocked! Now I had to practice what I had been teaching all those years before….. I was the student and I began to coach myself back into life with a whole new perspective.

Caregiver burnout, grieving a spouse, caring for two amazing young children, and readjusting to a new life led me to extreme exhaustion and adrenal burnout. It took years to recover, my whole lifestyle changed, and the way I approached life. I already had a blank slate without my husband, now I was recreating my whole lifestyle and how I coped with stress. It became a system of checks and balances. Was my activity, food, sleep, surroundings, etc., adding energy or depleting? Was I adding joy into my life?  Because I was already functioning at a very low threshold, there wasn’t room for anything depleting. Otherwise, I had the potential to develop further dis-ease.  

High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) was not the appropriate exercise movement for me to be doing with adrenal fatigue! Walking and very gentle yoga were my options. Even then, I could only do enough to slightly energize me, and then I had to stop. While I focused on all the other areas of my health, I slowly began to gain energy……about a year later! Still, to this day, if I don’t take care of my energy levels, the food I eat, stress, and add in joy, I can hear adrenal whispering me to listen to my body!  

So how do we know if the physical movement is supporting our health? The answer depends on who we are, our choices, environment, coping skills, and our health. Every physical activity can either restore or deplete our energy, which makes a big difference in our healing journey.     

We’ve been taught how important exercise is to our health and wellbeing in so many ways. It increases our lung capacity, strengthens our muscles and heart, and is a fantastic stress management tool (HELLO grief). Exercise regulates blood sugar, prevents injury, stimulates brain functioning (think grief fog), improves sleep quality, strengthens our immune system, and so much more! 

The body wants to move, and we’ve been doing it since the beginning of time. Mechanically, the body is a fantastic machine, and we are capable of accomplishing extraordinary feats of strength, finesse, and innovation. It also wants to continuously strive towards a state of balance. When there is an event that so drastically affects the body like a spouse’s death, our most critical survival mechanisms go to work. Because it is natural for the long term effects of grief to strain us in many ways, we can begin to understand the restorative power of physical activity and the potentially harmful effects of the wrong kind of exercise!  

Like any machine, a car has mechanisms built to maintain a smooth running engine and protect the vehicle during extremes. If it is freezing outside, we warm the engine up a bit, fully charge the battery and make sure there is plenty of gas and antifreeze. We utilize chains for snowy weather, and we take care to drive cautiously with ice. And lastly, consider there are even different cars better designed to perform better in specific environments and conditions.

Dare I compare our bodies to that of a machine or car! To keep it simple with a firm nudge of “you are experiencing something extremely life-altering, and the journey is uniquely yours,” the car machine analogy will get us through this topic. I will keep it simple and in bite-size pieces directly related to grief and the healing road to rediscovering life.  

When we are in a heightened stress state for a prolonged period, our immune system can become overwhelmed. So, the type of exercise movement can make a big difference between building the immune system or stressing it out even more.  

The big picture perspective of physical activity during any moment of stress is BALANCE, especially when we are in a state of high stress–– grieving and reintegration into life! We’re talking big stuff here, so please understand that your body, mind, and heart respond in a state of high-stress response. Let’s use the car analogy–– freezing temperatures in the middle of a Canadian snowstorm filled with low visibility (if any), icy roads, and barren landscape. You’ve potentially been in the snowstorm for decades, years, months, or days. The car (your body) is at its limits, and you don’t know when the next rest stop will show up!

 So a significant action you can take is to LISTEN to your body. Because each of us is a unique expression of the human experience, there will always be exceptions and differences. Just as life stories are unique, so is grief. Here are some general tips for integrating physical activity into your grieving wellness. 

Frequency: Let’s be honest; there may be time or multiple times where you don’t get out of bed, live in your pj’s, and retreat to the cocoon. Yep, that is real. Rest and recovery are just as important as growth and movement. To heal, the body needs to have fuel and energy to repair itself. And during extreme life circumstances, we do formidable things to survive. There will also be a time for you to peel off the sweats, take a walk around the neighborhood, or maybe venture to the store. Within moderation, exercise as often as your energy level allows. BUT, notice that if you lack the motivation to be physically active for prolonged periods, that may be a gentle reminder to check in with your medical and mental health providers or reach out for support.  

Balance….rest, restore, renew!

Intensity: Again, listening to your body will guide your exercise intensity. Notice how you feel an hour or so after exercising. Do you feel invigorated, or do you find yourself exhausted? Please realize you’ve been running an ultra marathon with grief and must recover appropriately. Professional ultramarathoners are meticulous with their recovery regime. It would be best if you were too. Too high intensity can tax your body, and too low may leave you without the positive chemical release experienced during exercise. A relatively safe bet for exercising during grief is walking. Start with a comfortable, gentle intensity, and as you gain more energy, increase your efforts to a moderate intensity where you can still carry on a conversation with someone. And finally, rising to high intensity when appropriate, can offer some pretty fantastic benefits for your overall health! Listen to your body and when ready, seek out a qualified health coach or personal trainer to facilitate further progress!  

Time: Something to remember– you can experience health benefits from exercise in as little as 10 minutes of movement. Depending on the type of exercise activity, the intensity, and frequency, the amount of time needed to support your well-being can vary! So start with five minutes of stretching in bed, and eventually, you may find yourself hiking for hours. The critical action here is to START somewhere and BALANCE! 

Type: ENJOYMENT! First and foremost, add positive, life-affirming moments to your daily life. What do you enjoy doing? Is it hiking, paddling, walking, yoga, outdoor sports, group classes, riding horses, swimming….? Adding more stress will continue to tax the immune system and, in the long run, can lead to other disease states within our body. Remember that what worked for your body before, may not be what best serves it now. Try an activity a couple of times and see how you feel. The rediscovery chapter of creating a new life after experiencing stress and loss is about testing out the new road map. Give yourself the flexibility to try different activities.  

Accountability Partner: Here is a shout out to the personal trainers, group classes, and, most importantly, our family and friends. Reach out to someone who you will enjoy spending time with and will encourage you to get out and move. Their support will serve as a double benefit with emotional and physical support! 

Remember this; you are rediscovering a whole new life.

Taking a single breath and getting out of bed are pretty fantastic achievements some days. The emotional expression of grief is exhausting to our physical bodies, our heart, and mind. When we recognize the reality that grief affects our WHOLE being, we can be tender with ourselves as we reintegrate into a new life. There will be old patterns and behaviors that no longer serve our well-being, which is a part of grief. Letting go of the parts of our lives that we enjoyed but now have no fulfillment or meaning is painful. Discovering new activities, places, people, and experiences that encourage us to say YES to living today takes work and energy. Part of our grieving journey is creating new life and living through significant changes. So give yourself a break when your body feels exhausted and tired. But also, be fierce with yourself when it is time to push out of unhealthy coping skills. Learn to be very mindful and aware of what adds energy and what depletes you. Continue to step towards those life-affirming experiences and gently let go of what no longer serves you.  

There will be moments we must take self-care days to fully express our beautiful grieving hearts and nourish our tired bodies. There will be days when we wake up with an extra ounce of hope-filled energy and choose to explore the undiscovered. Continuing to listen to the experiences that feel restorative and replenishing will give us the nourishment we need to keep growing into our new lives. Just like the car driving through the freezing snowstorm with ice on the road that must stop to refuel and replace any worn out parts, we too must honor ourselves by listening to our bodies. With balance, variety, support, and listening to your body, make sure to add some type of physical movement into your healing journey!  

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