A new study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research has sparked debate, with its surprising findings that regular running may be just as effective as antidepressants in treating depression and anxiety.
The randomized controlled trial directly compared the effects of a 16-week running program to a 16-week regimen of antidepressant medication in adults with diagnosed anxiety and depressive disorders. The results showed similar reductions in symptoms for both interventions, but with some key differences.
Study Design and Methods
The study enrolled 53 participants between ages 18-70 who were diagnosed with a depressive disorder or anxiety disorder, but were not currently taking antidepressants or exercising more than once per week.
Participants were randomly divided into two groups:
- Antidepressant group (n=25): Prescribed antidepressant medication by a psychiatrist, most commonly selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
- Running therapy group (n=28): Prescribed running at least twice per week for 45 minutes, plus education on managing injuries, sleep, and nutrition
The researchers measured mental health outcomes including depression, anxiety, worry, and insomnia severity. They also tracked physical health metrics like body mass index (BMI), blood pressure, resting heart rate, and lung function. Assessments were taken at baseline, mid-intervention, and post-intervention.
Key Mental Health Findings
Both interventions led to significant improvements in mental health:
- 45% of the medication group no longer had clinically diagnosable depression or anxiety after 16 weeks.
- 43% of the running group no longer had clinically diagnosable depression or anxiety after 16 weeks.
However, medications provided faster relief of symptoms earlier in the 16-week period, particularly for anxiety. By the end of the study, running caught up in efficacy.
Compliance was an issue in the running group, with only 52% completing the prescribed running training per protocol, compared to 82% of the medication group who took antidepressants as directed.
Physical Health Impact
While mental health improvements were similar between groups, physical health changes diverged:
- The running group saw decreases in BMI, blood pressure, resting heart rate, and other cardiovascular risk factors. Lung function also improved.
- The medication group had no positive physical health changes, and some measures like weight and blood pressure worsened, likely due to common medication side effects.
Concerns Over Replacing Medications with Exercise
Some psychiatrists have expressed concerns over these findings, worrying that patients may attempt to replace antidepressant medications with exercise without medical supervision. They emphasize the following:
- For those with severe depression or anxiety, medication plus exercise as adjunctive therapy is likely most effective. Exercise alone may not be enough.
- Work closely with your mental health providers before making any medication changes, even if adding exercise. Do not stop medications suddenly.
- Not all forms of exercise will have the same mental health benefits as the specific running program studied. Consult a fitness professional to design an appropriate routine.
Holistic Approaches to Mental Health Management
While this study focused narrowly on exercise versus medication, experts say neither should be viewed as a cure-all for depression and anxiety. Instead, the most effective approach is holistic: utilizing a variety of evidence-based tools and strategies.
“Mental health management should not be an either-or scenario when it comes to exercise, medication, or other interventions,” says Dr. Angela Zhou, psychiatrist. “The ideal combination of treatments is unique for each individual. An open dialogue with providers allows customization of care.”
In addition to structured exercise and psychotherapy, Dr. Zhou recommends those with depression or anxiety also focus on:
- Adequate sleep and rest
- Balanced, nourishing nutrition
- Strong social connections and relationships
- Activities that provide meaning, purpose and enjoyment
- Self-awareness through reflection and mindfulness
“There is no one perfect recipe for mental health,” reiterates Dr. Zhou. “But having a diverse set of resources at your disposal helps ensure you can cope effectively, even as life circumstances change.”
The Takeaways on Running and Mental Health
While more research is still needed, these early findings suggest:
- For some, regular aerobic exercise like running may provide mood benefits on par with antidepressants, though with slower onset. Exercise as the sole intervention may not be advisable for everyone.
- Maintaining an exercise program long-term is challenging. Combining exercise with other tools improves compliance and outcomes.
- Unlike medications, exercise offers extensive physical health benefits as well, which is especially vital for those with depression and anxiety who also have obesity, diabetes, or heart disease risk factors.
As with any health condition, consulting qualified professionals like mental health providers, psychiatrists, and fitness experts is key to determining the right treatment plan. An integrated approach accounting for both physical and mental wellbeing will provide the greatest chance of success.