Full length portrait of a fit woman runner

(© Martinan - stock.adobe.com)

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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22 Comments

  1. Jackie says:

    How about faith in a higher power, as opposed to the self alone?

  2. MICHAEL GROVE says:

    This is a ground breaking study?? Anyone that runs would tell you this, problem is most people don’t believe it or do not want to even try it because they are close minded and lazy. People lack discipline and have little control over their own mind, this study itself reinforces my theory. Now you should do a study on the people that run 25 plus miles a week and how it affects them.

    1. SuzanneL says:

      Many people would like to run, but have legitimate medical reasons not to. Like ASTHMA. So don’t be so snooty. People do die of asthma attacks. I’ve known 2, one was an 18 year old, who dropped dead of an asthma attack while running. It was her first, and last, such attack. The other was a 52yo man who knew he had asthma, and died at night at home. Some of his children, who also had asthma, knew not to run.

      1. SuzanneL says:

        The above comment was meant for scro, below.

  3. scro says:

    This is a ground breaking study?? Anyone that runs would tell you this, problem is most people don’t believe it or do not want to even try it because they are close minded and lazy. People lack discipline and have little control over their own mind, this study itself reinforces my theory. Now you should do a study on the people that run 25 plus miles a week and how it affects them.

    1. John says:

      Wow, I run. Depression almost killed me despite that. Anti depressants saved my life.
      Speak softly, especially if you are just venting. You have no clue.

  4. Obviously flawed study says:

    Fatal flaw with this study: self-selection bias. The participants selected which group they would be in. They were not randomly assigned to the treatments. So people who were already comfortable being able to run 45 minutes multiple days a week were in that group — who were probably already healthy to begin with. Any assertion that there is a causal link between one group vs. the other group and a resultant outcome based on the treatment conditions in this study ought to be retracted.

    1. mark shull says:

      Really…… It required a study to determine that exercise is better
      than putting chemicals in your body?
      Our society is in sad shape

  5. Rob P says:

    I was in the Army, and ran 5 days a week. I’ve never been more depressed.

  6. Robert says:

    This headline is absolutely absurd. It’s probably actively harmful. You should be ashamed of yourselves.
    – No control group
    – The participants chose their treatment
    – Running was paired with group engagement
    – Half the runners dropped out
    You’re the reason people don’t trust science media any more.

  7. Sonia says:

    I found this article quite interesting. But please what about someone that has wound on the knee? I really wish to be running but hardly do that because of the pain.
    But what can you suggest for me as I need to shed weight as well.

  8. Le Roy elliott says:

    The study must be flawed to come to such a conclusion.

    Antidepressant medications could never match the benefits of running, or even come close.

  9. Richard says:

    Sure, until you get shin splints and/or your knees give out. There are plenty of ways to exercise without hurting yourself.

    Exercise is good. You’ll live longer.

  10. william d says:

    running is difficult and often painful…..a vast majority of the population are incapable of running due to age, infirmity, obesity, family and occupation and location constraints

    i tried running many times in the past but shin splints and shortwindedness just made running impossible after a relatively short time…..i substituted into walking and sometimes brisk walking depending on the weather and circumstances

    the best thing about running was the stopping and the immense sense of relief that the self-imposed suffering was over for another day…i suppose that’s the dopamine portion of the running experience.

    antidepressants aren’t miracle drugs but they make a big difference in many people’s lives with minimal risk and cost

  11. Marq says:

    I like the idea of utilizing both regimens. I do so personally. I would actually say medication has helped me enjoy fitness way more than I did when I was not on medication.

  12. Bob Jones says:

    This is an absolutely dangerous and destructive study and those who post it like Drudge Report should be ashamed for the damage they are causing to real people already suffering one of the worst fates possible, that is genetically driven clinical depression.

    Depression runs in my family. My father and grandfather struggled and both died by suicide. My father was a good man who suffered this terrible disease. There is a huge difference between being depressed because of your situation (we all get this) and clinical depression and that is primarily driven by genetic susceptibility.

    And for the one who says to pray, you are why I left Christianity. God doesn’t help anyone except distract them from finding real solutions through science and ingenuity of the human mind. Being freed from suffering can only be reached by human ingenuity since God is completely missing from this world if he exists he clearly does not give a f–k about people like my father praying to him for years yet to be handed one of the worst fates possible.

    I had my first bout of real depression and Its like a hellish war. You cannot understand until you have been there. Period. Luckily I am better.

    So f–k off with this slandering of life-saving drugs. I hope there is a god or Karma and the people who advocate for these ideas one day experience the type of suffering they are causing people like my father.

  13. Bob Jones says:

    Also to make matters worse, our health care system is so poor in America some of us have chronic issues making us physically unable to run. Plantar Fasciatis, SIJ dysfunction, shin splints, knee issues. There are many who cannot run. And to those who pointed out the flaws in this “study” thank you.

    I have zero tolerance any more for this type of propaganda and ignorance / stupidity is no excuse for the damage you cause. Its not an excuse if you kill someone drunk driving nor is it an excuse for causing so much damage to people already suffering an incurable but often manageable mental illness.

  14. Bob Jones says:

    This is an absolutely dangerous and destructive study and those who post it like Drudge Report should be ashamed for the damage they are causing to real people already suffering one of the worst fates possible, that is genetically driven clinical depression.

    Depression runs in my family. My father and grandfather struggled and both died by suicide. My father was a good man who suffered this terrible disease. There is a huge difference between being depressed because of your situation (we all get this) and clinical depression and that is primarily driven by genetic susceptibility.

    And for the one who says to pray, you are why I left Christianity. God doesn’t help anyone except distract them from finding real solutions through science and ingenuity of the human mind. Being freed from suffering can only be reached by human ingenuity since God is completely missing from this world if he exists he clearly does not give a f about people like my father praying to him for years yet to be handed one of the worst fates possible.

    I had my first bout of real depression and Its like a hellish war. You cannot understand until you have been there. Period. Luckily I am better.

    So f off with this slandering of life-saving drugs. I hope there is a god or Karma and the people who advocate for these ideas one day experience the type of suffering they are causing people like my father.

  15. Tom Roberts says:

    scro I wish you the worst. You need to accept people are very different and not everyone was as lucky as you to not be born with depressive genetics. I bet you are scientifically illiterate or believe in God as a savior for your problems.

    Its time to evolve. We can’t replace god with Social Justice cult but we need to replace him with what can actually reduce suffering, intelligence and objective reasoning. You lack item 1 and are incapable of item 2.

  16. Claire says:

    I have been running and now power walking for almost 35 years. I even maintained daily work-outs while in grad school as well as doing a full-time job. People being able to do what they want for a study? And then people drop out? What a waste of resources. Exercise of any type will help but to conduct such a “study” with these variables is stupid.

  17. Jake Timble says:

    “Antidepressants work for most people”? Really? They don’t test any better than a placebo for most people, more like it.

  18. Midwest Paul says:

    This isn’t a double blind study.

    Also, including SSRI but not SNRI it’s no wonder the adverse side affects, such as body weight. “Given the study focused only SSRI antidepressant medication & didn’t include SNRI as well, it’s no wonder the adverse health effects such as weight gain. Here’s what was stated “Antidepressants generally had worse impact on body weight, heart rate variability and blood pressure.