Regular exercise helps people avoid the need for antidepressants

TRONDHEIM, Norway — There’s no question that exercise can be good for you. Among its many health benefits, exercise is one of the best ways to keep your brain in tip-top shape. It should come as no surprise then how exercise improves your mental health, although how much has always been a matter for debate. In a recent study, Norwegian scientists have found that people who regularly exercise take less mental health-related medication.

“We find that people who are in better shape fill fewer prescriptions for anxiety and depression medications,” says Linda Ernstsen, the senior author of the study and an associate professor from the Department of Public Health and Nursing at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), in a media release.

The results came from analyzing the health data of 250,000 residents in central Norway and comparing it to the Norwegian Prescribed Drug Registry, which keeps records of medications dispensed in Norway. The most striking finding was how being in better physical shape reduced the need for anxiolytics and antidepressants.

In a separate study, Ernsten’s team previously found a link between people being in good physical shape and a lower rate of depressive symptoms when researchers followed up with them 10 years later. However, there was no correlation between good physical health and anxiety at the time. The new study design allows researchers to dive into this question and look at what kind of medication people who volunteered their health information were prescribed since 2018.

Women working out, exercising outside
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However, there is one issue with this study design. It lets researchers see what type of medication participants were prescribed — but it does not mean people actually took the medication.

“Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that people who are prescribed medication have more symptoms than those who do not see a doctor,” explains first author Audun Havnen, an associate professor at the Department of Psychology at Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

Consistent exercise is good for people of all ages and genders, but some benefit more than others. Men, for example, showed greater benefits to their mental health and less need for mental health-related medication than women.

Another benefit of the new study design was being able to create a timeline of events. Does being in shape prevent anxiety and depression, or is it that people who have these mental health conditions exercise less often, making them more unfit? By excluding people with prescriptions for anxiety or depression at the start of the study, the study authors were able to focus on those who needed medication during this study period.

In other words, study participants started off depression and anxiety-free. According to the authors, exercise was likely helping to prevent the conditions from manifesting.

The study is published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

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About the Author

Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master’s of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor’s of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women’s health.

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