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A Valuable Tool For Processing Grief

Studies show that physical activity boosts endorphin levels and can serve as a valuable coping mechanism during times of immense sadness.

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Running Through Tragedy

The first time I experienced real grief, I was wholly unprepared for its effects. I’d never had to deal with the loss of a loved one before a friend passed away two years ago, and in the days and weeks immediately after her death, I felt completely unmoored. I’d either toss and turn all night, unable to sleep, or morning would come and I’d feel so thoroughly exhausted that the mere act of getting out of bed felt herculean. At work, I’d stare at my computer screen while emails blurred before my eyes.

Every day felt monotonous and filled with minutia that didn’t really matter. I’d lost my motivation and, instead, felt numb or sad. The only action that seemed to break through the stalemate was running. Lacing up my sneakers was therapeutic; even on the days when I had to stop mid-run to wipe away a sudden onslaught of tears, I felt small pieces of myself fitting back together. Pushing my physical limits made sense. Realizing I could still challenge myself helped me to feel that I was at least still in control of some aspects of my life.

That’s not a unique experience. Last year, Vice reported on a Rutgers study that positively linked running and a decrease in depression.

“There’s so much data on how regular physical activity, running or cycling helps reduce your stress,” Malissa J. Wood, MD, said. Dr. Wood is co-director of the Corrigan Women’s Heart Health Program at the Massachusetts General Hospital Heart Center and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Physical activity boosts your endorphin levels, Wood said, which not only helps you maintain your physical fitness capacity, but also stimulates feelings of happiness, calmness and peace. Sound familiar? You can call it the Legally Blonde effect–you know, “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy.”

“Most of us, when we exercise, take a break from external things in daily life,” Wood said. “The added benefit of exercise, especially running, when you’re out there by yourself on the road, gives you that break from constant feedback in your environment.”

Grief is a normal reaction after tragedy. But it can also bring with it a range of emotions that many find hard to sort through. Exercise, like running, can reintroduce a sense of calm and control into a life that suddenly feels broken.

Running helped me find a sense of purpose through a series of challenging days. It helped to ease the knot in my chest, and gave me the quiet alone time I needed to sort through the complicated emotions, thoughts and questions that had hitched a ride alongside my grief.

“Having run through a divorce, breast cancer, family crises, it’s been a very positive experience for me,” Wood said.

Still, exercise shouldn’t be the only outlet on which one relies in times of tragedy. Proper rest and nutrition, social support and seeking the help of mental health professionals are all equally important steps. It’s also possible to fall too far into a focus on pushing aside mental anguish in favor of physical challenges–in fact, after my loss, I ran myself straight into an injury.

“I wouldn’t want to make a broad statement, but sometimes when people exercise during times of emotional stress, it’s detrimental to their health because they don’t pay attention to how they’re feeling,” Wood said. “Exercise is a great way to manage grief or stress, but you still have to listen to your body.”

But even with the injury, I wouldn’t go back in time and caution myself against running through tragedy. It became a form of meditation, and allowed me the time to quietly wrestle with my loss and find my way back to myself. Running is a quiet act of confidence, and each step on those sad, lonely days reminded me of how to find the way forward.


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