Can physical activity support grief outcomes in individuals who have been bereaved?: a systematic review

Jane Williams, Gillian Shorter, Neil Howlett, Julia Fruer, Angel Chater

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Abstract

Background: In 2018, there were 616,014 registered deaths in the United Kingdom (UK). Grief is a natural consequence. Many mental health concerns, which can be identified as grief outcomes (e.g. anxiety and depression) in those who have experienced a bereavement, can be improved through physical activity. The objective of this review was to identify from the existing literature if physical activity can benefit grief outcomes in individuals who have been bereaved. Methods: A systematic review of nine databases was performed. Included studies (qualitative and quantitative) explored physical activity to help individuals (of any age) who had experienced a human bereavement (excluding national loss). Results: From 1299 studies screened, 25 met the inclusion criteria, detailing eight types of bereavement (parental (n=5), spousal (n=6), patient (n=4), pre-natal (n=3), later life (n=1), caregiver (n=1), multiple (n=4) and non-defined (n=1). Activities including yoga, running, walking, and martial arts were noted as beneficial. Physical activity allowed a sense of freedom, to express emotions, provided a distraction, and an escape from grief, while enhancing social support. Conclusion: There is some evidence that physical activity may provide benefit for the physical health and psychological wellbeing of those who have been bereaved, including when the loss has happened at a young age. This review is timely, given the wide-scale national loss of life due to COVID-19 and extends knowledge in this area. More research is needed to explore the benefits of physical activity for those who have been bereaved. In particular there is a need for well-designed interventions which are tailored to specific activities, populations and grief outcomes.

Key points
• Many grief outcomes following a bereavement manifest in physical and mental health concerns. Physical activity is known to have a significant positive impact on physical and mental health, yet its impact on these factors, that could be as a result of grief outcomes for those who have been bereaved, is unknown.
• This review suggests that physical activity may benefit grief outcomes in individuals who have been bereaved, alleviating feelings of depression, anxiety, and the experience of post-traumatic stress disorder; while also creating a sense of freedom, enabling the expression of emotions, providing a distraction, and an escape from grief.
• This is the first review of its kind, which highlights the possible benefits of physical activity to those who have been bereaved. Given the impact bereavement can have, further research in this area is warranted.
Original languageEnglish
Article number26
Number of pages17
JournalSports Medicine Open
Volume7
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 08 Apr 2021

Keywords

  • health psychology
  • grief
  • young people
  • death
  • physical activity

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