Running is as effective as antidepressants in improving mental health and offers additional physical benefits, a study reveals.
Patients who started running were just as likely to report a reduction in depression and anxiety after 16 weeks as those taking pills.
However, they also benefited from improvements in their physical fitness, with improvements in weight, waist circumference, blood pressure and heart function.
Meanwhile, those who received the drugs experienced a deterioration in these metabolic markers, researchers at Amsterdam’s Vrije University found.
The scientists studied 141 patients with depression and/or anxiety, who were offered a choice between two treatments over a period of 16 weeks.
Dutch scientists studied 141 patients with depression and/or anxiety, who were offered the option of running or taking drugs over a period of 16 weeks (file image)
Forty-five chose to take an antidepressant, which was the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), escitalopram.
And 96 chose to join a running group, which offered two or three 45-minute supervised sessions per week.
At the end of the trial, 44 percent in both groups showed 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 worsened.
Notably, only about half (52 percent) of participants in the running group fully adhered to the schedule, compared with 82 percent of those taking the medications, according to findings presented at the European College conference. of Neuropsychopharmacology in Barcelona.
Research Professor Brenda Penninx, from Vrije University, said: “It is important to say that there is a place for both therapies in depression care.
‘The study shows that many people like the idea of exercising, but it can be difficult to do, although the benefits are significant.
“We found that most people followed antidepressant treatment, while about half of the running group followed exercise therapy twice a week.
‘Telling patients to go for a run is not enough.
“Changing physical activity behavior will require appropriate supervision and encouragement.”
He 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 usually a good option.
‘However, we need to expand 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 option, and perhaps even better, for some of our patients.”
Members of the group who chose antidepressants were slightly more depressed than those who chose running.
The researchers say that antidepressant treatment required patients to comply with their prescribed medication intake, but this generally does not have a direct impact on daily behaviors.
Rather, exercise directly addresses the sedentary lifestyle often found in patients with depressive and anxiety disorders, encouraging them to get outdoors, set personal goals, improve their fitness, and participate in a group activity.
Commenting on the findings, Dr. Eric Ruhe of Amsterdam University Medical Centers said: “These are very interesting results that show once again that physical health can influence mental health and that treatment of depression and anxiety can be achieved through exercise, obviously without the adverse effects.” effects of antidepressant medications.
‘Nevertheless, several observations are important.
“First, patients followed their preferences, which is common practice, but ideally we would advise them what will work best.
‘Following this choice is understandable from a pragmatic point of view when patients have strong preferences, which must be taken into account when carrying out a study like this.
‘The disadvantage is that comparisons between groups could be biased compared to doing so in a truly randomized study.
‘For example, patients in the antidepressant group were more depressed, which could be associated with being less likely to persist with the exercises.
‘We must therefore be careful not to overinterpret comparisons between groups, something the authors correctly acknowledge.
‘Finally, a very important finding is the difference in adherence between the interventions: 52 percent in the exercise group and 82 percent in the antidepressant group.
‘This shows that it is more difficult to change a lifestyle habit than to take a pill.
«This does not occur exclusively in psychiatry, which indicates that we must also focus on how to improve compliance with healthy behavior.
“This could have a huge impact on healthcare in general, but also on psychiatric illnesses.”