Michelle Steinke-Baumgard was 36 when her husband of nine years died in a small plane crash in October 2009. Widowed with two young children, Steinke-Baumgard turned to exercise as an outlet for her grief, enabling her to shift her focus to something positive.
In her new book, Healthy Healing: A Guide to working Out Grief Using the Power of Exercise and Endorphins, she details her mental and physical journey.
‘I’m here to tell you to instead move forward. And the best way to move forward is by literally moving forward,” she writes.
“Physical fitness is a perfect metaphor for grief – the act of taking steps even when you’re tired and feel broken; these are emotional steps you will need to take in your grief journey as well. And as you take these daily steps forward, even small ones, you will find yourself empowered, strengthened, and walking toward hope.”
Steinke-Baumgard’s explains that, while the hard sweat of working out didn’t fix her grief, it allowed her to think, breathe and process her loss. She realised that fitness empowered her to leave behind expectations, demands and stress.
Physical fitness is a perfect metaphor for grief – the act of taking steps even when you’re tired and feel broken
“My workouts quickly became my saving grace – the only thing that helped me feel sane, my outlet for unimaginable grief..
“In the gym, I felt somewhat normal, and that is a gift to any grieving person. I craved normality, but normality is often fleeting after loss. Fitness gave me a chance to escape the pain for a short time and find a release for all the anger, sadness and frustration.”
Steinke-Baumgard is not alone in turning to exercise as a form of healing.
On his Love Your Sister Facebook page earlier this month, actor Samuel Johnson, posted how exercise is helping him to overcome his grief after the loss of his sister, Connie, to breast cancer in September 2017.
In the post, Samuel wrote, "Figured it would be good for me to take a walk after Con's death, seeing as it has been mostly barstools lately. Need to shake it off, ya know!”
In the gym, I felt somewhat normal, and that is a gift to any grieving person.
Similarly, the former England soccer captain, Rio Ferdinand, recently said that he’d turned to boxing as way to cope with his grief following the deaths of his wife in May 2015 and his mother in July of this year.
"Me having something to channel aggression and emotions that arise from the events of the past couple of years, this is a great platform," Ferdinand said.
"With grief and situations you encounter in life, you need to have a focus. My first focus was getting stuck into work and this is an extension of that.”
While many studies have shown the benefits of exercise for both physical and mental health, there’s currently limited research on how it may aid with the grieving process.
However, health and wellbeing psychologist, Marny Lishman, says that working out is definitely beneficial during this time.
“Exercise keeps you physically healthy, which is important when grieving because your mind and body are connected, so grief impacts both,” Lishman tells SBS. “It isn’t just psychological.
“Exercise helps to boost your endorphins, which are your body’s ‘natural opiates’ that make you feel good, and allows you time to reflect on what’s happened and process the pain.”
Lishman notes that participating in a fundraising fun run or exercise event can be a good incentive to exercise, particularly for people who struggle with motivation.
“Fundraising for a cause, specifically if it’s related to the loss of your loved one, gives you a ‘why’ to keep you motivated,” says Lishman.
“Often, our own health isn’t enough to keep us motivated, so running for someone else or for something ‘bigger than ourselves’ is more motivating to us. It attaches meaning to our behaviour.”