Why I Think Exercise is Bad for You

by Paul Cullen, Ph.D. on February 27, 2013

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I am probably the only mental health professional in the world who is going to tell you exercise is bad for you, but hear me out. Last year I attended a workshop on the neuroscience of depression. I was impressed by the latest fMRI and PET scans presented showing changes in the brain following treatment. The esteemed presenter used this information to suggest carefully considered psychotherapy strategies. But then he went on to share a list of recommendations (backed up by the neuroscience) for patients suffering from depression: avoid drugs, alcohol and caffeine; eat a careful diet; sleep and wake at the same time every day; exercise once a day; practice mindfulness exercises and keep a daily journal. My ears pricked up and I looked around the room and to my surprise everyone was nodding in agreement. I put up my hand up and said to the presenter, “If I did all those things I’d be depressed too”, which was followed by boos and jeers from the audience.

If you can’t have a cup of coffee and a slice of cake with a friend, stay out at night and enjoy a rich Indian meal and a glass of red, and you’re too busy to anyway because you’re exercising and mindfully meditating, what’s the point?

Exercise, The Good

The biggest benefit of exercise is that it increases cortical blood flow. This means blood is flowing to the ‘smart brain’ instead of the ‘impulsive brain’ which is involved in stress, anxiety and depression. It also releases feel good chemicals (endorphins) and burns up the stress hormone cortisol. The reduced cortisol also helps a key molecule (BDNF) function which is involved in helping your brain re-wire itself (neuroplasticity). Consequently, studies show that regular exercise can result in a 50% reduction in the symptoms of depression. Other potential benefits can be weight control, increase in self-esteem and confidence and sometimes opportunities for social interaction. These studies suggest aerobic and strength training exercises 5-7 times a week for at least 45 min at an intensity which corresponds to sufficient changes in your breathing to make it difficult to talk. If you’ve ever suffered from serious depression you’ll know what a big ask that is (if not impossible).

Exercise, The Bad

OK, let’s pretend the above regimen is possible -so what’s my problem with it? I don’t have a problem with it per se, my beef is that simply exercising is not a sufficient alternative to dealing with the root cause of the problem. People can and do use exercise as a kind of sedative that allows them to tolerate bad situations longer.

When we are prevented from achieving a goal (something we need or want) we feel frustration and sometimes anger. When we are fearful or under stress we feel anxiety and if the stress or fear is prolonged we can develop depression. Frustration, anger and anxiety all result in physiological arousal – your body literally ramps up for action. This energy is meant to be used to change something in your situation or to remove yourself from the situation. If instead we use that energy to jog around in circles or repeatedly pick up heavy objects and put them back down again, then we are not using that energy to help change our life situation. Exercise is performed instead of a relevant action and is thus a ‘displacement activity’.

Using exercise as a displacement activity has serious consequences. For example, when exercise is used as a displacement activity, people’s frustration at a dehumanising workplace is not mobilised to protest against the working conditions or to leave the job. Problems in relationships with partners and families remain unaddressed while the frustration or anxiety is burnt off at the gym. Feelings of loneliness are warded off by putting miles on the road. Grief is cast aside to pick up a set of dumbbells.

What other problems do I see with exercise? In my opinion, many people overdo exercise which has negative consequences. They don’t engage in a gentle walk after dinner but train for a gruelling 42km run. Exercising so intensely can cause injuries. In fact some individuals use exercise as a form of masochistic self-punishment. Many forms of exercise are solitary and people may spend many hours engaged in them, depriving them of healthy social contact and support. Exercise can also become an obsession and can even become an addiction in which people become dependent on a sense of euphoria and experience withdrawal and anxiety if they are unable to exercise. New conditions are being recognised such as musclerexia (muscle dysmorphia) and the use of performance enhancers such as anabolic steroids and growth hormone by non-professional athletes is on the rise.


When it comes to dealing with mental health problems and physical wellbeing the verdict is in on its positive effects. As a counsellor and psychotherapist I am concerned that the ‘directive to exercise’ being driven by the medical establishment and the media has negative consequences. Exercising serves as a displacement activity that directs people’s energy away from making changes in their lives and communities and thereby serves to pacify the populace.

Agree or disagree? I’d like to hear your thoughts in the comments section.

The team at Paul the Counsellor provides counselling and psychotherapy to individuals and couples in the Melbourne CBD.

0458 090 687
253 Lonsdale St, Melbourne VIC 3000

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