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Running is just as effective as drugs for treating depression

A new study from Vrije University has shown that running can be just as effective as antidepressants in treating depression. 

The results of the research, recently presented at the ECNP conference in Barcelona, highlight both the mental and physical benefits of exercise over antidepressants.

Key findings

The study showed similar benefits in mental health between the group that took antidepressants and the group that engaged in running.

“Both interventions helped with the depression to around the same extent,” said Professor Brenda Penninx, who led the study.

“Antidepressants generally had a worse impact on body weight, heart rate variability and blood pressure, whereas running therapy led to an improved effect on general fitness and heart rate for instance.”

Health improvements

Over a 16-week course, the running group showed improvements in weight, waist circumference, blood pressure, and heart function.

Conversely, the antidepressant group, who took Escitalopram for 16 weeks, exhibited a tendency towards a slight deterioration in these metabolic markers.

Focus of the study

The study was focused on 141 patients suffering from depression and/or anxiety. The individuals were given the choice between taking SSRI antidepressants for 16 weeks or joining a group-based running therapy for the same duration. 

The majority, 96 participants, opted for running while 45 chose the antidepressants. This discrepancy in numbers indicates a clear preference for exercise over medication among the participants.

Professor Penninx noted that the individuals who chose the antidepressant route were slightly more depressed than those who opted for running.

Adherence to treatment

Despite the evident inclination toward running, the dropout rate for the exercise group was considerably higher. 

Only 52 percent of the running group adhered to the recommended two to three supervised 45-minute group sessions per week for 16 weeks. The adherence rate for the antidepressant group was 82 percent.

The nature of each treatment might explain this difference. While taking antidepressants requires simple medication intake, running necessitates a more active approach, urging individuals to counter the sedentary lifestyles often associated with depression and anxiety disorders. 

Running encourages individuals to go outdoors, set personal goals, enhance their fitness levels, and engage in group activities.

Room for both therapies 

“It is important to say that there is room for both therapies in care for depression. The study shows that lots of people like the idea of exercising, but it can be difficult to carry this through, even though the benefits are significant,” said Penninx.

“We found that most people are compliant in taking antidepressants, whereas around half of the running group adhered to the two-times-a-week exercise therapy.”

Exercise therapy 

While the study shows that exercise provides additional physical health benefits, the challenge remains in ensuring that patients stick to their exercise regimen.

“Telling patients to go run is not enough. Changing physical activity behavior will require adequate supervision and encouragement as we did by implementing exercise therapy in a mental health care institution.”

Study implications 

Professor Penninx stressed the importance of this study as it gave patients a real-life choice between medication and exercise. She said the research aimed to assess the impacts of both treatments on overall health, not just mental well-being.

“Antidepressants are generally safe and effective. They work for most people. We know that not treating depression at all leads to worse outcomes; so antidepressants are generally a good choice,” said 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.”

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