9 Things That Happen When You Stop Exercising

Are you considering quitting exercise? This is how doing so could impact your brain and your body.

You are at higher risk for depression

Quitting exercise has numerous negative effects on your health—and mood changes may be the first to rear their ugly head, according to Jim White, an ACSM exercise physiologist. “The brain will begin to change, and the person may have brain fog or not feel as cheerful,” he says. “This is because the brain does not receive as much blood going to the hippocampus as it would if the person was exercising.” One study from the University of Adelaide found that stopping exercise can increase depressive symptoms after just three days. 

Doctor women is checking patient with stethoscope and measure blood pressure.
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Your blood pressure rises

After two weeks of not exercising, your blood vessels begin to stiffen and your pressure can begin to rise, South African researchers found. In another study, Japanese researchers discovered that after three sedentary months, endurance athletes experienced increased arterial stiffness, which has been shown to contribute to a rise in blood pressure; after 12 months of detraining, that stiffness became even more significant.

You’ll lose control over blood sugar

If you can keep your blood sugar levels steady, you’ll lower your risk of weight gain, fatigue, and chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. A study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology revealed that participants who followed an eight-month-long regimen of strength and aerobic training improved their blood glucose levels—but about half of them lost those benefits within 14 days of quitting exercise. Plus, here are 7 scary cancers you could prevent just by exercising.

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Your muscles shrink

The loss of muscle mass and bone health after stopping exercise is not easily regained and can lead to increased risk of serious injury,” says Miho J. Tanaka, MD. Your risk of joint or back pain rises, as well, adds Dr. Tanaka. Where you lose muscle depends on the type of exercise you stop doing, according to New York-based certified strength and conditioning specialist Mike Clancy. If you’re a runner, for example, your leg muscles can lose strength and size, he says. As for weightlifters, any muscles regularly worked will deflate, Clancy says. 

You’ll lose endurance

Although you won’t wither away “into a skeleton,” Clancy notes, your endurance will decrease once you stop working out consistently. “Your heart will be more sensitive to resistance, putting you at greater risk for health issues, and your lung capacity will be less efficient with the flow of oxygen,” he says. Find out the best workout for every age group.

Medical weight scale and measuring tape

You could gain weight

Stopping your exercise routine doesn’t automatically equal weight gain, according to James Shapiro, a New York-based personal trainer with an MS in exercise science. But watch the scale closely, warns Shapiro: Your body’s energy demands will be lower, so you have to eat less. “Metabolic activity decreases with a lack of physical output, which tends to lead to weight gain without adjustments being made to food intake,” he explains. 

Female doctor examining pelvis x-ray in hospital office, medical professional in white uniform analyzing hip image in clinic

Your bones become more fragile

Regular exercise—especially weight-bearing exercises like strength training, walking, and jogging—is essential to maintaining bone strength and reducing the risk of osteoporosis, according to the Mayo Clinic. When you sit for most of the day, your bone density will decline faster.

You’ll sleep worse

If you quit exercise, you’ll find it tougher to snooze soundly. Research suggests that regular workouts increase total sleep time, and that can help you feel more alert during the day. Multiple studies, including one published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, indicate that regular exercise is key to sleep quality. Don’t miss these other subtle but powerful benefits of exercise (other than weight loss).

You’ll find it challenging to re-start your routine

The difficulty of re-starting your exercise routine will mostly depend on your previous fitness level. Forbes.com reports that the more in shape you are, the less time it will take to get back your old fitness levels. Exercise physiologist Walter Thompson of Georgia State University told lifehacker.com that it takes about two months for your strength level to get back to normal—but it takes a bit longer to regain endurance. If you find yourself struggling to get back into a workout routine, check out these 11 tricks that will motivate you to exercise.

Emily DiNuzzo
Emily DiNuzzo is the former associate editor at The Healthy and a former assistant staff writer at Reader's Digest. Her work has appeared online at the Food Network and Well + Good and in print at Westchester Magazine, and more. When she's not writing about food and health with a cuppa by her side, you can find her lifting heavy things at the gym, listening to murder mystery podcasts, and liking one too many astrology memes.