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

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