Research Compares Running Therapy to Depression Medication With Promising Results
- In a study that compares running therapy to antidepressants, researchers found that 16 weeks of a running programme can offer similar benefits to these medications.
- The running intervention involved expert guidance from trained therapists, as it can be harder to keep consistent.
- Experts explain that several factors go into depression treatment — and medication is a crucial part of that— but lifestyle factors may also play a key role.
For better depression management, research has often suggested exercise as a way to ease symptoms and optimise therapeutic approaches — for example, one study notes that exercise may improve how you respond to antidepressants. But a recent study, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, stacks exercise like running directly up against medications to see which is more effective.
Turns out, they have similar benefits, but running led to other physical health improvements while antidepressants had the opposite effect.
Researchers recruited 141 patients with diagnosed depression and/or anxiety and offered them the choice of either selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), an antidepressant medication, or group-based running therapy for 16 weeks — 45 chose medication while 96 selected running.
The running group exercised in a therapeutic setting at least twice a week, guided by mental health practitioners who were trained as running therapists. While these experts didn’t offer direct talk therapy, they did offer guidance on things like connecting to the body and physical boundaries. At the beginning of the programme, the experts also discussed past experiences with exercise and shared information on things like food, fatigue, injuries, sleep, and recovery.
The running sessions lasted 45 minutes, including a 10-minute warm-up, 30 minutes of jogging, and a five-minute cool-down. Each participant wore a heart rate monitor and the goal was to jog at an intensity of 50-70% of heart rate reserve for the first four weeks, and 70-85% in the final 12 weeks.
At the end of the trial, around 44% in both groups showed improvement in depression and anxiety, but only those in the running group had additional benefits in terms of better blood pressure, heart function, and waist circumference. Those in the antidepressant group showed slight deterioration in these metabolic markers.
Verhoeven said the exercise itself likely led to the favourable outcomes for those in the running group, but also factors like being outside, getting exposed to daylight, and setting and reaching goals also likely helped to enhance the mental benefits.
“When looking at somatic health outcomes [those relating to the body], running therapy outperformed antidepressant medication, as it had several beneficial effects for somatic health, while antidepressant medication’s side effects actually decreased somatic health variables,” Verhoeven added.
That’s because antidepressants have known side effects that include weight gain, increased blood pressure, and decrease heart rate variability, she told Runner’s World.
Despite the findings of this recent study, this shouldn’t cause people who need antidepressants to veer away from medication, which can be very helpful in treating certain forms of depression, said Dr Lindsey Law, psychiatrist at Prairie Health. She told Runner’s World that many factors go into diagnosis and treatment of depression, including the role of lifestyle behaviours and the use of medication.
Also, if you’re currently on antidepressants and want to try easing off that medication with a strategy like exercise, definitely check in with your healthcare provider because you need to reduce those meds gradually rather than stop them suddenly, according to Law.
In general, doing more exercise like running can be an effective complement to depression therapy, but it’s important to tailor your approach based on your individual situation — and to get guidance from health professionals along the way.
“One interesting aspect of our research was that most patients chose running as an intervention, but many found it difficult to complete the 16 weeks,” said Verhoeven. “I think this shows how difficult it is to change behaviour and that’s true for everyone, but especially when depressed. That’s why we’re now offering running therapy for patients with depression, so they have personal guidance when trying this intervention.”