woman with head under pillow

Does Depression Make You Lazy?

Depression doesn’t make us lazy — but it does make physical activity more difficult.


We all know we should exercise more; the benefits of working out regularly are as mental as they are physical. But when we’re struggling with depression or its symptoms, everything may seem effortful and unpleasant, especially physical activity.


For some, this can worsen the self-criticism that often accompanies depression. Because with all of this understanding of the benefits of exercise, what other explanation is there for not working out but that we’re lazy? Teasing and encouragement from well-meaning friends and family – like “stop being lazy” or “just tell yourself you’re going to do it, and do it” – reinforce this negative self-perception, and slowly, the possibility of exercising, along with better mental health, seems even farther out of reach.

But this isn’t laziness. Here’s why.


Why exercise is hard when you’re feeling sad or low


When we are struggling – whether we’re actually in depression, grieving, or dealing with a period of persistent sadness and lowness – we slip closer and closer (or farther and farther) into survival mode

All of our energy is being poured into just getting by, leaving us with no energy to give elsewhere. We start to withdraw socially as well as shut down physically, and feelings of low self-worth and nihilism are common. And mustering the motivation for exercise can be difficult when everything seems pointless.


Is laziness a symptom of depression?


It may seem like depression makes us lazy, but what we’re experiencing is something called ‘learned helplessness,’ and it’s our body’s effort to adapt and survive while depressed.

When we’re depressed, we often feel like we don’t have a choice. Or we may feel that whatever we choose won’t change anything — for example, we may feel we will still be too tired to exercise, no matter how much sleep we get; or, we’ll still be unfit no matter how much we exercise; or, we’ll still feel worthless, no matter how healthy and active we are.

This negative outlook is ‘learned helplessness‘ — we condition ourselves to accepting that our situation can’t be changed. For many, in combination with other depression symptoms like fatigue and demotivation, this plays out in what outwardly appears to be ‘lazy’ behaviour.


Here are some examples of how depression’s learned helplessness may get in the way of physical activity:


  • “I’ll just fail again.” Feelings of low self-worth often prevent us from picking up exercise — especially those of us who have never been very athletic before. We expect ourselves to fail before we’ve even tried.
  • “I’ll embarrass myself.” For most people, exercise activities occur in public places – parks, playgrounds, and gyms filled with other people. Poor mental health often causes us to assume others are paying (negative) attention to us and judging us, even when they’re not. 
  • “I wouldn’t even know what to do.” When we’re struggling, our ability to take decisions can be impaired, making even a simple decision like what to do at the gym, or whether to walk or run, feel overwhelming. In response, the body disengages further, the mind settles into its indecision further, and we stop exercising.
  • “I’m too tired.” Poor mental health is a physical experience as much as a mental one. It’s linked to fatigue, inconsistent diet, and disrupted sleep, which can leave us actually too tired to exercise. (In some cases, people with atypical depression may even experience ‘leaden paralysis,’ which makes their arms and legs feel heavier than usual.)
  • “I’ll make it unhealthy.” Exercise can be highly negative, even triggering, for people who have survived eating disorders, people who were bullied for not being athletic enough, people who have navigated toxic, competitive sporting environments, and others. In such cases, working out may trigger negative habits like over-exercising as self-punishment, restrictive diets, and bingeing/purging food.

On top of this, some of us simply dislike exercise and other forms of strenuous movement – maybe we don’t like sweating, or maybe we’d just rather do other things. When we’re struggling, we tend to seek comfort – and a disliked activity does not bring comfort.


How to get yourself to start exercising when depressed


Ultimately, no matter how we feel, we do have a choice about our level of physical activity, even when our mental health puts us into survival mode. But getting started with exercise when we’re depressed can be difficult. It often requires us to reconsider our goals and relationship with physical activity. Here’s how to get started:


  • Speak with a therapist: First, taking care of our mental health is integral in improving many of the emotions that get in the way of physical activity. A therapist or other mode of therapy can help us understand where feelings like hopelessness, demotivation, and more come from.
  • Start with small, realistic, and possible goals. Physical activity does not have to be very strenuous to yield mental and physical health benefits. A 10-minute walk every day isn’t a huge commitment in terms of time, speed, or stamina, yet it can have measurable health and mental health benefits. Avoid appearance-based goals like weight loss, muscle definition, or feats of strength take a long time to achieve. They can cause us to dive in and quickly become discouraged when we don’t see immediate effects. They can also worsen any negative feelings related to body image we may feel. Instead, set goals around consistency, like exercising three times a week, or goals related to duration, like exercising for 20 minutes every day.
  • Reconsider what exercising means. If we’re struggling to clean our homes or do the dishes, getting ourselves to do a workout is farfetched. Instead, consider what physical activity we find meaningful and valuable at our capability on the day in question. Maybe the only physical activity possible some days is showering – that’s okay.
  • Celebrate non-goal benefits. Exercise will bring about a variety of random benefits that people notice when they least expect it. This includes better sleep, more energy, better balance and posture, and much more. Celebrating these achievements when we notice them will help reinforce how exercise improves overall our quality of life and help keep us motivated.
  • Take days off. Despite these tips and our best efforts, there will be days when we don’t feel up to exercising. That’s fine – rest is as important as physical activity. Showing ourselves compassion and not judging ourselves on these days will make getting back into and maintaining a physical activity habit easier.

Remember: depression manifests differently in everyone, and some people struggling with depressed feelings may not find it difficult to stay physically active. 

Exercise is a means to create a better quality of life, support better mental health, and strengthen our bodies. But finding it hard to exercise when we’re struggling mentally isn’t laziness – it’s simply difficulty using a tool. We just have to relearn how to use physical activity in a way we can manage.

Learn more:

Raksha Rajesh (M.Sc., M.Phil., CRR No. A80195) is a clinical psychologist licensed by the Rehabilitation Council of India (RCI). She has 5+ years of experience in helping people from diverse backgrounds build skills to understand and manage their emotions.

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