Nearly a month ago, I answered my phone and received devastating news that my sister-in-law had died unexpectedly in her sleep at age 33. Now my brother, 36, is suddenly a single father to their five children ranging in age from 1 to 13 .
My family is extremely close, so this loss has been difficult to deal with, especially because it directly affects my nieces and nephew at such a young age.
When we lose our loved ones, no matter the circumstance, it can be very tough to make sense of it all. Some of us have become familiar with the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
I’m not a psychologist, but as a fitness professional, I have observed those struggling with grief skip through these stages in no particular order or even stay in one stage for a long time. It is not a race, and talking to a professional therapist or counselor is crucial in adjusting to this new reality. My brother has told me he plans to seek help from a counselor for him and his kids, which I’m very pleased to hear.
Exercise also can provide a form of escape or relief while coping with grief. Running, biking, hiking, weightlifting, swimming, taking a group fitness class, etc. — all can help produce an emotional outlet. Exercise pumps up your endorphins, a chemical response that releases a positive feeling and signal to your brain and nervous system. I usually resort to exercise to help deal with any life situation that seems to be out of my control.
Working out can also help relieve stress, anxiety or depression. When I returned to teaching classes after taking time off to be with my family, it felt good to sweat it out. I think I even shed a few tears, too. Plus, one of the best benefits of taking or teaching group fitness classes is the camaraderie and support you receive from others. I’ve been fortunate to get this extra support from class participants and fellow instructors.
Not only has exercise helped me get through some tough times, I’ve seen it ease the heartache of others who have struggled with personal obstacles. For instance, I had a new mother in her late 20s come to me after one of my group fitness classes and tell me how coming to class provided an escape for her anxiety. With tears running down her face, she disclosed to me that she had been struggling with getting her newborn to sleep and it was making her feel like an unfit mother.
A woman in her 50s from my class seemed to be dealing with tragedy after tragedy. She lost her son to suicide, her father died a year later and then she was also going through a divorce. In a brief chat with her one day, I asked her how she was holding up, and she said coming to the gym was saving her life and allowing her to cope with all the heartbreaking events in her life.
Last weekend, I taught a 30-minute Zumba class at a family bridal shower and was extremely happy to see my nieces participate. They danced, they cheered, they laughed, and they even rolled their eyes at me. Essentially, they acted like kids. And while I know it will probably take a lifetime for them to deal with the loss of their mother, it was good to see them enjoy themselves while exercising.
These scenarios and similar life stories I hear from gym members continue to prove to me that exercise offers more than just a way to lose weight or improve your physique. It is also one of the best ways to strengthen your mental wellness.
Stephanie Swearngin has been a nationally certified fitness professional for 10 years.