Is it Possible to Exercise Too Hard When You’re Depressed?

Woman collapsed in bed from exhaustion
Photo by Vladislav Muslakov on Unsplash

The short answer? Yes.

Depression affects every single body and mind differently. While there are well-written articles on the Internet that focus on the physical and emotional benefits of exercise, I’m here to tell you that the intensity of the exercise also matters.

We might have a tendency to think that more is better when it comes to healthy habits. If five minutes a day of cardio is good, two hours a day is even better, right?

Well, it depends.

If you don’t have the energy to do that two hours of cardio plus all the other things you need to do, like showering, going to work, and eating enough to sustain you throughout the day, consider scaling back a little. There’s no shame at all in knowing yourself and what you are able to do from one day to the next.

I personally learned this the hard way just over a month ago. I go to karate class twice a week, as I have for two years. Karate is a very self-driven sport. One of the exhortations in our dojo-kan is to “seek perfection of character”, which, as you can imagine, sometimes gets me in over my head. One evening, when it came time to put my uniform on and drive to class, I found that I was already very tired from the day. I know when I’m over-tired because my body will refuse to move, my heart will flutter in panic, and I’ll feel like crying for no reason. But, even in this state, I was determined to go. So, I put my uniform on and went.

To my surprise, I managed to make it through the class. I was thoroughly exhausted afterwards, and collapsed into bed immediately after showering.

The next day, I got up and went to work. As I sat at my desk that morning and tried to force my brain to function, I started to cry. This triggered a panic attack, and I was not able to function normally for the rest of the day. After seeing my doctor, she suggested milder exercise for the days when I’m low on energy.

So now, when I need to exercise but can’t commit to a full workout, I do one of these:

  1. Gentle stretching
  2. Going for a short walk outside
  3. Tai Chi
  4. Light housework
  5. A few jumping jacks to warm up, followed by a (very) small number of pushups or sit-ups

Try one of the items on the above list and take a mental inventory of how you feel. And then congratulate yourself on the effort you made! It might feel silly at first, but doing anything when you’re depressed can feel impossible. You just proved to yourself that you can exercise despite feeling this way. That’s huge!

Your brain also gets little “mini-highs” from accomplishing a task. This builds energy, hope, and self-confidence.

Instead of summoning all of the day’s energy to complete a demanding workout (like me), take something small that makes you feel good, and repeat it as often as you need to. You got this!

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