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How to Deal With Crankiness From Exercise Withdrawal

Prioritize this critical time for your health.

Key points

  • Many people who exercise view it as an emotional necessity.
  • Research has shown that a person’s mood may be altered when their exercise routine is interrupted by situations like extreme weather.
  • The mental benefits of exercise may be related to its ability to distract us from anxieties or provide an escape from ongoing responsibilities.

The extreme heat over the last few weeks in much of the country has made exercising outside almost unbearable and even dangerous. Weekend athletes who customarily spend time in outdoor activities possible only during warm-weather months found themselves sitting in front of the air conditioning unit rather than sitting on a bike or in a kayak. Even indoor gyms were not great alternatives because getting to them meant braving high temperatures and humidity.

Many who exercise view it as an emotional necessity. If situations like extreme heat (or cold) arise that make it difficult to work out, they may find their mood altered, according to a review of research. The authors reviewed 19 research studies in which individuals who habitually exercised had to stop, mainly because of medical conditions. The studies all found that after stopping their exercise, individuals experienced an increase in anxiety and depression, and these mood changes worsened when the exercise withdrawal exceeded two weeks.

Exercise is supposed to release endorphins, chemicals in the brain that produce a sense of well-being or even euphoria, e.g., runner’s high. There are those who claim to experience this positive change in mood and others who claim that their euphoria comes when they are finished with their exercise and can take a hot shower. One problem is that the endorphins are in the brain and few, if any, athletes volunteer to have a brain biopsy immediately after an exercise session to measure changing levels of these chemicals. They can be and are measured in the blood but some researchers doubt if this is a valid reflection of what is happening in the brain. Moreover, although it is hard to doubt the phenomenon of runner’s high, the release of endorphins in the brain may not be the cause. When runners who experience this euphoria have been treated with naloxone, a drug that blocks endorphin release, they still have the high.

The emotionally-soothing effects of exercise may be related to its ability to distract us from our anxieties and worries. Participating in a lively aerobics class during which it is hard to focus on anything except how to imitate the instructor’s movements, or counting repetitions while lifting weights, may stop us from focusing on our problems—at least temporarily. Additional distractions are often provided by music, either through headphones or gym speakers, weather (good or bad), scenery, barking dogs, and an occasional chattering squirrel or fellow gym member. The worrisome stuff can come back into our heads by the time we are back in our street clothes, but at least there was a respite for an hour or so.

Exercise may be particularly important (and its withdrawal particularly deflating) when it allows an escape from ongoing responsibilities and/or insoluble problems. A friend started running when she was in the early stages of a divorce and the difficulties with child custody, finances, and even where to live all seemed insurmountable. "I know I was running away from my problems," she told me, "but running made it possible for me to face them again when I returned home." Another friend who is almost housebound because of the need to take care of a disabled spouse goes to the gym when a caretaker allows her an hour or two off each day. "Moving my body vigorously seems to help shed the tension I feel all the time in the house," she told me. "After running on the treadmill for an hour, I feel capable of going home again and resuming my responsibilities."

Indeed, the benefits of exercise in improving mood have been long noted by mental health professionals. According to a review looking at the effects of exercise on symptoms of depression, the use of exercise in the treatment of this mental health disorder was first studied early in the 20th century. Both aerobic exercise, like jogging and running, and resistance training to strengthen muscles had positive effects on depression among both men and women.

Thus the crankiness (and worse) that follow exercise withdrawal is not surprising; there may be nothing to replace its effect on soothing depressed moods, worry, and anxiety. When exercise must stop due to medical issues, it is important to learn when it can be started again. Sometimes the information is vague, i.e., "Don’t do anything strenuous for six weeks" or "Avoid doing something that will raise your blood pressure." The problem with this information is that it is often given by a physician or assistant who is vague about exercise in general, or doesn’t inquire about the patient’s normal level of physical activity. Avoiding strenuous activity for the unfit may mean not climbing a flight of stairs. For the fit, it may mean running on a flat surface for 6 miles rather than on hills. Information about alternative types of exercise is rarely given: If I cannot run, can I swim? Can I climb any stairs? Am I allowed to walk briskly but not jog? Should I be monitoring my pulse? And what is also often overlooked is that exercise advice is in the category of "one size fits all." So when someone is told to avoid all exercise for six weeks after an operation, is this advice as relevant for someone young and fit as for someone old or someone young and unfit?

It is also important to recognize non-medical situations that may halt the ability to exercise and identify ways of minimizing their effect on mood. Heat or bitterly cold, snowy, or icy weather can make access to outdoor exercise or gyms difficult. But too-long workdays, unexpected obligations that overlap exercise time, meetings and conferences that start at 8 a.m. and end 12 to 14 hours later, as well as visits to family and/or friends whose plans do not include time to exercise are also obstacles that can come between you and your workout.

If you know that a few days without dedicated time to exercise will affect your mood and well-being and leave you cranky, try to maneuver time to exercise into your schedule. A walk may not be sufficiently strenuous, but it may be the only physical activity you have time to do. Skipping a meal like lunch at an all-day meeting might give you time for a short run or workout in a hotel gym. Do the same if the plans made by your family or friends on a holiday trip ignore your need to exercise.

You will feel better and everyone will appreciate its positive effects on your mood.

More from Judith J. Wurtman Ph.D.
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