Study finds running works as well as antidepressants for mental health

Running works just as well as antidepressants to boost mental health, study suggests

  • Dutch experts offered mental health patients the choice of running or drugs
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Running is just as effective as antidepressants at improving mental health – and offers additional physical benefits, a study reveals. 

Patients who took up jogging were as likely to report reduced depression and anxiety after 16 weeks as those who took pills. 

However, they also benefitted from gains in fitness, with improved weight, waist circumference, blood pressure and heart function. 

Meanwhile, those given the drugs saw a deterioration in these metabolic markers, researchers from Vrije University, Amsterdam, found. 

The scientists studied 141 patients with depression and/or anxiety, who were offered a choice of two treatments over a period of 16 weeks. 

Dutch scientists studied 141 patients with depression and/or anxiety, who were offered a choice of running or drugs over a period of 16 weeks (stock image)

Forty-five chose to take an antidepressant, which was the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) Escitalopram. 

And 96 elected to join a running group, which offered two or three supervised 45-minute sessions per week. 

At the end of the trial, 44 per cent in both groups showed an improvement in depression and anxiety. 

However, while the running group also showed improvements in physical health, those in the antidepressant group showed a tendency to have got worse. 

Notably, only around half (52 per cent) of participants in the running group fully adhered to the schedule, compared with 82 per cent on the drugs, according to findings presented at the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology conference in Barcelona. 

READ MORE: We’re proof you CAN be ‘fat but fit’ (and why it’s better than being slim but anti-gym) 

Varisha Tariq, a London-based writer, has an ‘obese’ BMI but doesn’t believe her weights prevents her from being fit. The 26-year-old says she has been exercising since the age of 12 and enjoys hitting the gym due to the ‘joy and adrenaline’ it gives her

Researcher Professor Brenda Penninx, of Vrije University, said: ‘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. 

‘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. 

‘Telling patients to go run is not enough. 

‘Changing physical activity behaviour will require adequate supervision and encouragement.’ 

She added: ‘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. 

‘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 members of the group which chose antidepressants were slightly more depressed than those who opted to run. 

Researchers say treatment with antidepressants required patients to adhere to their prescribed medication intake but this generally does not directly impact on daily behaviours. 

In contrast, exercise directly addresses the sedentary lifestyle often found in patients with depressive and anxiety disorders by encouraging them to go outside, set personal goals, improve their fitness and participate in a group activity. 

Commenting on the findings, Dr Eric Ruhe, from Amsterdam University Medical Centres, said: ‘These are very interesting results that again show that physical health can influence mental health and that treatment of depression and anxiety can be achieved by exercising, obviously without the adverse effects of antidepressant drugs. 

‘However, several remarks are important. 

‘First the patients followed their preference, which is common practice, but ideally we should advise patients what will work best. 

‘Following this choice is understandable from a pragmatic point of view when patients have strong preferences, which you have to take into account when doing a study like this. 

‘The downside is that the comparisons between groups might be biased compared to doing this in a truly randomised study. 

‘For example, patients in the antidepressant group were more depressed which might be associated with less chance of persisting engagement in the exercises. 

‘So, we have to be careful not to over-interpret the comparisons between groups, which the authors acknowledge properly. 

‘Finally, a very important finding is the difference in adherence between the interventions: 52 per cent in the exercise group and 82 per cent in the antidepressant group. 

‘This shows that it is more difficult to change a lifestyle habit than taking a pill. 

‘This is not exclusively found in psychiatry, indicating that we also have to focus on how to improve compliance to healthy behaviour. 

‘This could have tremendous impact on healthcare more generally, but also on psychiatric diseases.’ 

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