Why Am I So Depressed After Working Out?

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated June 4, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

People may have a range of motivations for wanting to exercise. Exercise can improve physical health, reduce the risk of certain types of illness (including cancer), and offer a sense of purpose. Some people may also exercise because exercise can be linked to a boost in overall mood.

However, some people may experience the opposite when they exercise, such as a drop in their mood levels, potentially leading to sadness or thoughts of hopelessness commonly associated with depression. Learning more about the range of possible mood effects of exercise may help you better understand why working out may not make you feel better and how to adjust the situation to reap more mood benefits. 

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Potential causes of post-workout depression

Note that post-workout depression is not a mental illness listed in the DSM-5. However, this term might be used in pop culture to describe a sense of sadness, melancholy, or distress after working out. 

There can be various causes of sadness or depression after working out or engaging in physical activity and exercise. Physical and mental health can be closely related; what impacts your body may also affect your mind and mood. Below are a few of these potential causes. 

Insufficient food intake

Low mood after working out could be due to insufficient fuel for your efforts. If you’re exercising more than you used to or in a different way, your eating patterns may need to change to keep up with your new activity levels. If you don’t provide yourself with more food or more substantive food, you may experience an energy crash after a workout, causing fatigue and potentially sinking your mood.

Your first step in addressing a saddened state after a workout could be to plan for the next workout and ensure you eat substantive food before your workout starts. However, avoid food that is too heavy, or you could experience nausea or cramps while working out, especially if you are doing a cardiovascular exercise. Foods high in carbohydrates, protein, and natural fats may be helpful. In addition, ensure you are adequately hydrated by drinking the recommended amounts of water for your weight and height.  

Unrealistic expectations

If you are feeling depressed or unhappy after exercise, it may help to ask yourself what you hope to accomplish by working out. Below is a list of reasons people may be pursuing an exercise program:

  • To accomplish a healthier lifestyle
  • To manage weight
  • To build muscle
  • To achieve a certain figure or “look”
  • To train for a goal, like running a marathon or making the football team
  • To feel stronger 
  • To relieve stress
  • To improve mental health
  • To boost energy
  • To fix sleep issues

If your primary motivation for working out is a goal for which you are not seeing results or the results aren’t coming as quickly as you expected, you might feel down and discouraged. It may be helpful to note that lifestyle changes may not have tangible effects in days or weeks. Some lifestyle changes can take months to have an impact. 

It could also be beneficial to look closely at the root motivation behind your goal. Is your goal of losing weight about the number on the scale? Or is it about making a positive and proactive change in your life? Reframing your goal may help with expectation misalignment. 

Another way to reframe your efforts is to try focusing on what you have accomplished instead of what you haven’t. Can you run for longer than you used to be able to? Achieve a yoga pose you couldn’t before? Lift a heavier set of weights? 

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Excessive stress

People often work out to alleviate stress, so some may be confused about how exercise could worsen it. Physical activity can be a healthy way to reduce stress levels or the impact of stress on your body and mind. However, in situations involving severe or chronic stress, your mental and physical functioning may be pushed to its limit, and a workout could tax your body’s already limited resources. 

Some people may believe stress and depression are separate conditions, but stress, especially chronic stress, can heighten depression risk and make the following depression symptoms worse

  • Changes in your sleep cycle, whether insomnia or hypersomnia 
  • Increased fatigue
  • Heightened irritability
  • Intensified negative emotions, like anxiety or sadness (can be caused by the over-production of cortisol, the “stress hormone”)

Some workout routines may be better than others at reducing stress instead of heightening it. If you are going through a particularly stressful period in your life and notice that exercise seems to be making your stress worse instead of relieving it, you may want to temporarily shift away from a high-intensity workout to a more relaxed option, like yoga, tai chi, qigong, walking, or casual stretching.

Overexertion

Pushing yourself excessively during workouts can lead to symptoms nicknamed “overtraining syndrome.” Overtraining syndrome may be more likely to occur in someone training for a specific goal, particularly if they have markers they hope to achieve in pursuit of that goal. This challenge might be less common in people who are focusing more on everyday workouts with the intention of generally improving their personal health and fitness. However, anyone can develop the condition.

Some of the symptoms of overtraining syndrome can overlap with symptoms of depression, including:

  • Tension
  • Fatigue
  • Confusion
  • Loss of energy
  • Decreased motivation
  • A sense of hopelessness or sadness

Overtraining syndrome can lead to a vicious cycle in which a person beats themselves up for not performing as well as they would like and pushes themselves harder, consequently often exacerbating their symptoms and worsening their performance further as a result.

If you are worried you may be experiencing overtraining syndrome, scheduling sessions with a certified personal trainer could be helpful. A workout professional can help evaluate your current exercise practices and work with you to develop a workout routine that is maximally efficient and effective and guides you toward your goals without damaging your physical or mental health in the process. 

Existing mental health conditions

If you have adjusted other aspects of your workout routine and your attitude toward exercising, but you are still not feeling great after physical exertion, it could be a sign of a mental health condition. However, note that depressive symptoms often have to be persistent for two weeks or more to be diagnosed. 

Aerobics, strength training, cardiovascular stimulation, and other forms of working out can release endorphins, one of the body’s “feel-good hormones.” If you feel worse after exercising, as opposed to feeling better, it could be an indication of a more significant mental health challenge, such as depression or anxiety.

If you are depressed after you work out, speak to a mental health professional to see if you could be experiencing one of the following depressive disorders:

  • Major depressive disorder (the condition most people are referring to when they use the colloquial term “depression”)
  • Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder
  • Persistent depressive disorder (previously called dysthymia)
  • Premenstrual dysphoric disorder
  • Perinatal depression

Depressive disorders can be treated, and a change in your mental state is possible. A therapist can help you assess whether you meet the criteria for a depressive disorder and how to determine the next steps for treatment. 

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Support options 

If you are focused on training for a marathon or another goal or incorporating new workout routines into your life, you may not have much free time to attend in-person therapy sessions. Symptoms of depression, like fatigue and hopelessness, can also make it difficult to motivate yourself to get out of the house. In both cases, online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp could be helpful. 

With online therapy, you can connect with your therapist from the comfort and convenience of your couch. In addition, you can access unique resources you might not find in a face-to-face setting, such as journaling prompts, group sessions, and worksheets assigned by your therapist. 

Research indicates online therapy may be as effective as conventional in-person therapy at treating symptoms of depression. A recent study found that attending online sessions of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) reduced depression symptoms in clients. If you believe you may have a depressive disorder or want a professional to help you boost your mood after exercise sessions, online therapy could be a helpful resource for you.  

Takeaway

There are multiple reasons working out may be worsening your mood or causing you to feel depressed, including a lack of proper caloric intake, preexisting high stress levels, potential overexertion, mismatched expectations, and underlying mental health conditions. Talking to a therapist can be a helpful way of evaluating your current workout situation and identifying what might be giving you a depressed mood after exercising. Consider contacting a professional online or in your area to get started. 

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