How Exercise Withdrawal Contributes to a Decline in Mental Health

By Alexa Lewis

Fitness professionals, physicians and marketing campaigns alike boast that regular exercise increases levels of serotonin, dopamine and endorphins, the chemicals that produce happiness in an individual. If these are the natural benefits of consistent physical activity, then what happens when exercise is taken out of the equation?

Dr. Ali Weinstein, associate professor of global and community health and director of the Center for Study of Chronic Illness and Disability along with Christine Koehmstedt, a student in Mason’s Master of Public Health Program and a colleague from Tilburg University completed a review of research that focused on the negative mental health impacts of exercise withdrawal. In their article, “Mental health consequences of exercise withdrawal: A systematic review” they discussed their findings that the withdrawal of exercise was linked to an increase in symptoms of anxiety and depression.

“There has been a lot of research linking a sedentary lifestyle to symptoms of depression and anxiety,” Dr. Weinstein stated. “However, many of those studies were cross-sectional in nature and therefore have limited causal relationships. The uniqueness of the studies we examined is that they are experimental, and in many cases randomized, withdrawals of exercise. The increase in symptoms of anxiety and depression that is seen with these experimental studies allows us a closer glimpse at potential causal relationships between exercise and mood than the traditional cross-sectional approaches.”

385 individuals, in a total of 19 studies were systematically reviewed to evaluate the consistency of exercise deprivation effects across the diverse studies. There are several reasons, why an individual may cease physical activity. Voluntary lack of activity may be caused by the loss of motivation, or fear of injury; while involuntary halts in activity are attributed to sickness or activity-related injury. It is important to understand the difference in reasoning as it corresponds to the presence of withdrawal symptoms. In the review, Weinstein explained “the more important exercise is to an individual, the more likely it is that the individual will have a more adverse reaction to its removal.”

Of the studies reviewed, depressive symptoms such as fatigue, tension, low self-esteem, insomnia, and irritability were frequently reported. Mood and temperament were measured with questionnaires such as the Profile of Mood States and the Zung anxiety and depression scale. For elevated symptoms to appear, the minimum time period of non-activity was approximately two consecutive weeks.

While the experimental research connecting exercise withdrawal to a decline in mental health is thorough, it is not all encompassing. In supplement to the experimental research, observation and real-world modeling would provide more well-rounded results.