“Exercise Withdrawal” Can Harm Mental Health

We all know that exercise and happiness go hand-in-hand. But what happens when people cut back on daily exercise – whether because they’re busy, they develop health conditions that prevent exercise, or they just lapse in their habits?

You might guess that what happens is nothing good, and you’d be right. A group of researchers from the United States and the Netherlands have confirmed this with a systematic review of previous research on exercise withdrawal.

Altogether, the researchers found 19 studies that involved “experimentally controlled exercise withdrawal.” In other words, these are studies where researchers specifically told participants to stop exercising, then watched what happened as people intentionally shifted to more sedentary lives.

Over and over, the studies found that when people quit exercising, their symptoms of anxiety and depression started to rise. The longer they limited their exercise, the worse things got, with the most significant effects occurring when people underwent “exercise withdrawal” for at least two weeks.

Most of the studies focused on anxiety and depression, so there wasn’t enough information to say whether or not “quitting exercise” can contribute to other mental health problems.

Regardless, the results point to a clear, causative link between exercise withdrawal on one hand and anxiety and depression on the other. According to the researchers, this could be a factor in how health conditions that result in limited ability to exercise can also precipitate anxiety and depression. And for those who are able to exercise regularly, the findings are a good reminder that regular physical activity can have real mental health benefits.

For those living sedentary lives out of either choice or necessity, though, the study does have some good news too. It turns out that while exercise withdrawal can harm mental health, quitting exercise rarely leads to “severe mental health issues requiring clinical intervention.” So you might notice a drop in mood or some more anxiety, but ceasing to exercise on its own probably won’t bring about severe depression.

It also remains to be seen whether the negative effects of exercise withdrawal taper off in the long-term, or whether stopping exercise results in a moderate drop in mood that never really goes away. And of course, some people probably have a higher need for exercise than others – we’re all running our own one-person experiments in how much exercise is optimal. But the more research is done, the more likely it looks like there’s a real, cause-and-effect relationship between exercise and mental health that we can all learn something from.

Image: Flickr/Fit Approach


  1. Anonymous on June 21, 2017 at 11:45 pm

    And then there those of us who feel worse when we do exercise, and better when we don’t. I’ve felt suicidal while exercising, or started bawling during a workout—and doctors don’t believe me when I tell them.

    • Neil Petersen on June 22, 2017 at 2:57 pm

      Yeah, we’ve all got to find what works for us individually — which sounds like it really isn’t exercise for you! Best of luck!

  2. Anonymous on June 24, 2017 at 11:02 am

    I had an intense exercise routine that greatly reduced my anxiety and depression, as well as negated the side effects of medications. I went from not being able to walk to the mailbox to doing ten miles in under an hour on my elliptical machine. Then the machine broke and getting repaired has proven so stressful that I’m afraid it’s going to trigger another episode. It’s been well over a month and I’m feeling more tired and irritable, and having a harder time sleeping. I have a great deal of anger toward the store for not caring about any of this.
    If exercise is important to your mental health, avoid DICK’S SPORTING GOODS!

    • Neil Petersen on June 26, 2017 at 2:21 pm

      It’s great that you found an exercise routine that works for you. Sorry to hear about what’s happened — best of luck getting it fixed and working again soon!

  3. Eva Jackson on July 24, 2017 at 3:42 pm

    I just discoverd a new word: “kineseophobia”. I’ve had it all my life and My body shows it. Now, as an older person, the exercise withdrawal caused by physicl disabilty, has taken over. Internally, I’m satisfied, but my mind knows better. I’ve never experienced an endorphin rush. Depression has lurked all of my life as well, so I have tried to counteract it with activity. It does seem to have some little benefit .. or maybe I’m just happy I’m doing what I’m ‘supposed’ to do. I will continue to fight myself on this matter.

  4. Smokythebear on August 21, 2017 at 1:35 pm

    I enjoyed walking, then broke my foot. I have to stay off the foot. I do yoga instead. Holding a pose does burn calories. As long as I am doing some kind of exercise, what does it matter, if I do it inside or outside, or even in my room?

    • Neil Petersen on August 21, 2017 at 2:51 pm

      Absolutely! And there’s quite a bit of research into mental health benefits associated with yoga — maybe I’ll write about that some time.

  5. Ali on September 13, 2018 at 2:57 pm

    Hi I ‘ve lost around 90 kgs of weight In 1 year with diet and hard efforts In the gym , I used to workout intensively like 2hr or 1hr 30 min but one day due to epididymitis I was advised by doctor to stop gym for 1 month but after that I was not able to go gym now it’s been 2 and half months since I left gym and guys seriously In the beginning of the break I was fine but at the mid of the break I started getting panic attacks and anxiety I had depression I was feeling scared lonely. Then I went to a doctor he prescribed me with a tablet divalex 0D-250 and told me to exercise and I am going to return to the gym tomorrow and honestly I don’t think the tablet is tht good but the doctor told me to continue.