Science Wednesday: Why to work out when you’re sad.

Full disclosure on this cloudy Wednesday morning in Seattle:

I am sad.

The sun has set on a friend's life here on our little planet. And still, we move, we live, we love. (Image courtesy of kongsky at
The sun has set on a friend’s life here on our little planet. And still, we move, we live, we love. (Image courtesy of kongsky at

Yesterday I learned (kind of randomly through a Facebook feed) that someone I knew during my hyper-intense sportswriting days passed away this week. He was close to my age (43) and had had some medical issues over the past year that were pretty intense…but I had no idea that any part of what he was going through was life-threatening in any way. The news came as a pretty major shock. He was a buddy. There were a lot of good memories there.

He was a “big brother” kind of friend who sent me supportive emails when I was working on new projects, someone who was in the press room with me late at night after Houston Rockets games back when we were both working that beat for our respective publications, and someone with a super-quick wit and sparkling generosity.

Today, absorbing the news that my buddy passed away on Monday, I am sad.

So, as I try to do every day of my life, no matter what else is going on, I look for a way to excavate the bigger lesson here.

What’s the benefit of working out when we’re sad? And what does science have to tell us about it?

Plenty, as it turns out. I turn to the web today for resources for you to consider when you’re sad and still committed to taking care of yourself.

The best resource I found this morning in a quick-but-focused Google search is this article from writer Sarah Elizabeth Richards: “Sweating out the Sadness: Can Exercise Help You Grieve?”

Exercise can help us attain mastery over our emotions. Especially during the hard times. (Image courtesy of phasinphoto at
Exercise can help us attain mastery over our emotions. Especially during the hard times. (Image courtesy of phasinphoto at

The answer, of course, is yes. Some of the greatest hits from an overall really excellent and well-researched article (emphasis mine):

According to [Vicki] Costa [a clinical social worker and grief counselor with Safe Harbor Counseling in Bel Air, Maryland], exercise…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.” 

Some thoughts from the article on “choosing 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.

And on the idea – oh-so-tempting – that we can somehow schedule our grief and decide when we’re “over it”:

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.

Check out the complete article for the scientific papers and citations that back up all of these findings. As always, it’s a compelling argument for the value of getting going with movement, no matter what else is going on in your life. Exercise can help you get on the path to healing, and in that spirit, I’ll be heading out the door for a longer-than-usual walk this morning in my friend’s memory.

On this Wednesday, I wish you peace and contentment, a great workout, and a sense of deep perspective about your life.

Rest in peace, Chris Duncan. Thank you for the memories, the support, and that silly midnight iHop trip in Houston back in 2008. See you on the other side.

Yesterday: A rest day and a WALK midday to get the juices flowing. I had a bunch of stuff to do in the morning, including a fun talk at the Seattle Opera (Seattle people: Go see Don Giovanni this fall!), so the walk was my only real time to move during the day, but I got out there.

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