Why Exercise Won’t Make You Happy
As I did some research for this post, almost immediately I was annoyed.
I was doing some keyword research and first looked up “exercise makes me happy.” There were tons of articles on popular websites touting the happiness-inducing effects of exercise. These articles were filled with exclamation mark-laden paragraphs emphasizing that as long as you exercise, you’ll be happy for “days on end!” ( <– actual quote)
I then countered with the search “exercise doesn’t make me happy” and found significantly fewer results. Almost all referenced a study published in the British Medical Journal indicating that adding a physical activity intervention did not reduce symptoms of depression more than usual care alone.
In 2012, this was apparently an important study, but since then so many “feel better quickly” articles have flooded the internet that there seems to be little room for science. Instead, we take the advice of people in the fitness industry who, upon further inspection, have gained popularity based on image or who make blanket statements that can’t possibly pertain to the entire population. Sorry guys, I’m a little salty here.
The media is flooded with quick fixes to stress, anxiety, and other burdens that come with anyone’s life. One of those is to incorporate exercise in order to sleep better, eat better, and simply feel better overall. On some level this is accurate, as exercise helps to release dopamine in the brain and endorphins, which, while short-lived, still make you feel good following a workout.
For those of us who suffer with more clinical issues such as anxiety and depression, however, exercise alone is simply not enough.
I have been active for a lot of my life. I played sports in high school and then exercised on my own during and post college. There were periods of time where it wasn’t as much of a focus, but I always enjoyed exercise and found my way back to it after a hiatus.
Exercise has been something that has gotten me through several tough times in my life, including when Neil and I almost separated. I ran as a form of meditation and I sweated it out as a way to get out a lot of the hurt and anger I was harboring. While those workouts were important for me to process feelings and emotions, they never made me happy.
I let popular culture influence me, often asking myself HOW MANY BURPEES DO I HAVE TO DO TO FEEL NORMAL?? HOW MANY MILES DO I HAVE TO RUN SO THAT I CAN GO GROCERY SHOPPING? WILL THIS PUSH UP MAKE ME STOP CRYING?
My happiness was fleeting and always washed away in my post-workout shower. I felt accomplished and ready to take on my day, but I was never happy doing it. I’d still end up unable to move from the couch and feeling more a lack of feeling than anything else.
I realized that if society was telling me that exercise would leave me happy “for days on end!,” yet my exercising 4-5 days a week was doing nothing, it was probably time for me to look for another solution.
For me, the progression goes: try to do it myself — fail — try it again — fail — (prob some more trying and failing) — finally ask someone for help.
I had tried it on my own and wasn’t getting anywhere. That’s when I decided to ask for help in the form of a therapist. My case was involved enough that even with a couple months of therapy, we decided that I was going to need some chemical assistance. I started taking an antidepressant in conjunction with therapy, which meant I still had to do work to improve situations in my life, but that now I could actually do the work that needed to be done.
So here is my point.
Exercise is wonderful. There are tons of benefits to exercise and if I didn’t believe in them, I wouldn’t have made personal training part of my career. Exercise has helped me through difficult times, it makes me feel strong and capable, and it’s something I really enjoy.
Of those many benefits, however, curing clinical depression and anxiety is not on the list.
If you struggle with any depressive or anxiety symptoms, by all means exercise, just don’t rely on it to fix them. Find someone to talk to. Find a friend, family member, or preferably a licensed therapist or social worker. Don’t try and force yourself to exercise more or beat yourself up if you feel like you’re not getting better.
Chances are you’re like me and simply need a little extra help.
20 comments on “Why Exercise Won’t Make You Happy”
This resonated so well with me, Erin! I’ll be first to admit that I never liked exercise much and back when I went running daily, I hated, hated, hated it. I often felt depressed before going for a run. I agree that exercise can be a good outlet, but sometimes, it’s not enough!
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The wellness world needs more balanced articles such as this one!
Thanks for reading Amanda!! ❤️
Such an important message, Erin.
I love exercise and have found it does wonders for my wellbeing. That said, it takes a lot more work (therapy, meds, and a lot of different forms of mindfulness and self-improvement) to fee my best.
Plus, as a working mom, I have to deal with the guilt I feel when I take time to exercise instead of spending that time with my family (totally unreasonable, but I’m a people pleaser and have always struggled with guilt).
I love your insight Erin. I could feel the endorphins kick in at about one mile into my run…(when I used to run to work off the extra calories I stuffed in my face.) It was the high I craved. Like the name of your blog, Erin’s Inside Job I found its more about balance. I found yoga, meditation, journaling and therapy to round that out for me. I can fix up the outside to be real pretty and all but if I’ve got a bunch of unfinished internal stuff rollin around in my head then it’s all just window dressing for guilt and shame.
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Totally in agreement with you on this. I have struggled with anxiety for much of my life and exercise alone would never be a fix all for me. In fact, there was a time where I’d even say exercise was making my anxiety worse!
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<3 <3 <3
That is all.
Aw you’re the best
I think exercise can add a lot of good to our lives, it can even add in a treatment for mental health issues, but yeah, it can’t fix an underlying problem by itself.
I know lots of people who also claim that they never get a “workout high” or feel their endorphins (probably exactly because they expect to feel “superhappy” after a workout and it’s usually not THAT).
Thanks for sharing your insight, Erin. Thought-provoking for sure.
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Great piece, huge fan of your blog. The peddling is done by people who have never experienced depression, or other conditions. They think by virtue-signalling that this will make them a “good person.” The best way to help people that are depressed or whatever is going on is to be there for them, and do your best. Not telling them to just “run it off, bro.”
Thanks Damien! I totally agree. Thanks so much for reading and commenting 😀
This is such an important post! I can’t tell you how many times people told me to just do yoga to get over my mental illness. Like, no, it does’t work that way! I have found for me personally that hitting my favorite gym is an important part of my well-being, but only when I do it alongside getting enough sleep, eating decently, talking to someone, and taking medication. There is no way that exercise alone would help, but it’s part of my treatment plan that works for me (and might not for someone else, which is okay!)
Thanks for reading Emma!
Yep. Yes. Just this past Tuesday, I had a pretty off day. I was lethargic and anxious and just didn’t feel my best. Someone said to me, “just go run. Running fixes EVERYTHING.” I’m training for my first half, so my initial thought was that they’re probably right and I should go run. I typically feel better after exercise, because exercises gives you endorphins and endorphins make you happy. And happy people just don’t kill their husbands (Legally Blonde, anyone?). But when I got home, what I knew helped me in that moment was spending quiet time with my pets and sitting by a candle, not running 4 miles. Exercise is good for you, but it isn’t a cure for anything. Pet snuggles on the other hand… 🙂
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Unfortunately, I have to agree with you, Erin! Having gone through all that (and still going), I can say that while exercising doesn’t cure any mental health issues, it could, at best, offer some temporary relief. This is at least the case for me. May I ask, if the antidepressant had any side effects on you? I am always extremely cautious about taking any drugs, and was very hesitant, when the therapist I was seeing suggested that I take one. I ended up not taking anything and I still wonder if I didn’t make a mistake there.
Was great to read an authentic and honest post on mental health. We need more of that! Thanks!
I have been exercising to try and make myself happy only to find myself wanting to put a gun to my head afterward. It’s not helping me feel better. I’m seeing a therapist and he is confused as to why I feel that way after exercising and so am I. When my friends were still around the said I must be doing it wrong and to me to a gym. Only to feel like my life was a waste. My so-called friends and family are all sense gone now. They got tired of dealing with me and said Intel I get better I should just stay away. My therapist and the internet are the only places I can turn to for help.
But all the sadness aside its good to see that others kinda feel the same after exercising. I feel like I might not be that broken after all.
I really appreciated this! Within the past year, I’ve started exercising regularly and I have noticed the post-workout “high” I experience and how good it makes me feel. I look forward to my exercise sessions because it helps me to relieve stress and clear my mind, but some days that isn’t enough. I think that exercise is one of many great things that you can do to improve your life, but works best in conjunction with other methods. At the end of the day, exercise helps treats the symptoms of sadness, but not the root of the sadness itself. Just my two cents.
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Yes! Totally agree w you on this 🙂
Thank you so much for this article, Erin. People need to see that for those with clinical depression anxiety, exercise, eating right, and quality time with loved ones isn’t enough. Believe me, I wish it were. It’s so important for us to have a rational voice like yours saying it’s ok to take meds and why it’s ok. The biggest aid for me, along with a solid daily treatment plan, is keeping my expectations in check.
Yes! For some of us we just need a little extra help. Expectations are key too; it sounds like you’ve got a good outlook on things!