Exercise Or Antidepressants? Study Finds Running Just As Effective For Treating Depression

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands — Running is as effective as medication when it comes to battling depression, according to a groundbreaking study. Along with boosting a patient’s physical fitness, researchers from Vrije University in Amsterdam determined that roughly the same percentage of individuals with depression and anxiety experienced improvement after 16 weeks — regardless of whether they were running or taking antidepressants (44%).

Participants either joined a supervised running group two to three times a week or were prescribed the SSRI escitalopram.

Most participants chose exercise, which not only improved their mental health but also had positive effects on their weight, waist circumference, blood pressure, and heart function. Conversely, those on antidepressants typically experienced a decline in fitness.

However, experts emphasize that simply advising patients to run isn’t sufficient. More runners dropped out of the study, with only 52 percent sticking with the regimen, compared to an 82-percent adherence rate for those on medication.

“We wanted to compare how exercise or antidepressants affect your general health, not just your mental health,” says Professor Brenda Penninx from Vrije University in a media release. “Both interventions helped with the depression to around the same extent. Antidepressants generally had worse impact on body weight, heart rate variability and blood pressure, whereas running therapy led to improved effect on general fitness and heart rate for instance.”

Women running on treadmill, working out
Running on a treadmill (© NDABCREATIVITY – stock.adobe.com)

The researchers add that while many patients like the idea of exercising, consistent participation can be challenging. Despite its clear benefits, more participants adhered to taking medication than maintaining a twice-weekly exercise routine. The team emphasizes the importance of adequate supervision and encouragement when promoting physical activity as a treatment.

Of the 141 participants offered either SSRI antidepressants or group runs for 16 weeks, 45 chose medication, and 96 opted for running. The medication group generally adhered to their prescribed regimen without significant alterations to their daily routines. The runners, however, participated in supervised 45-minute group sessions two to three times weekly. This approach aimed to counter the sedentary lifestyles often associated with depression and anxiety by encouraging outdoor activity, goal setting, and group engagement.

“Antidepressants are generally safe and effective. They work for most people. We know that not treating depression at all leads to worse outcomes,” says Prof. Penninx. “Nevertheless, we need to extend our treatment arsenal as not all patients respond to antidepressants or are willing to take them. Our results suggest that implementing exercise therapy is something we should take much more seriously, as it could be a good – and maybe even better – choice for some of our patients.”

The study author also highlights the potential side-effects of treatments and the importance of considering tapering and discontinuation of antidepressants when appropriate.

The study is published in the Journal of Affective Disorders and was presented at the 36th European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP) Congress in Barcelona.

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South West News Service writer Pol Allingham contributed to this report.

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