- In a study comparing running therapy with antidepressants, researchers found that a 16-week running program can offer similar benefits to these drugs.
- The running intervention involved expert guidance from trained therapists, as it can be more difficult to maintain consistency.
- Experts explain that several factors influence the treatment of depression, and medication is a key part of it, but lifestyle factors can also play a key role.
To better manage depression, research has often suggested exercise as a way to ease symptoms and optimize therapeutic approaches, for example, one study notes that exercise can improve how you respond to antidepressants. But a recent study, published in Journal of Affective Disordersstacks exercise such as running directly with medication to see which is more effective.
They turned out to have similar benefits, but running led to other improvements in physical health while antidepressants had the opposite effect.
Researchers recruited 141 patients diagnosed with depression and/or anxiety and offered them a choice of either selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), antidepressant medication, or group running therapy for 16 weeks.45 chose the drug, while 96 chose running.
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The running group exercised in a therapeutic setting at least twice a week, led by mental health practitioners trained as running therapists. Although these experts did not offer direct talk therapy, they did offer guidance on things such as connecting with the body and physical boundaries. At the start of the program, experts also discussed past exercise experiences and shared information on things like food, fatigue, injuries, sleep and recovery.
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 run at an intensity of 50 to 70 percent of heart rate reserve for the first four weeks, and 70 to 85 percent for the last 12 weeks.
At the end of the trial, about 44 percent 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 a slight worsening of these metabolic markers.
The most important conclusion is that we showed that ongoing therapy and antidepressants are equally effective in treating depression and anxiety disorders when looking at mental health outcomes, including remission and response rates, said lead researcher Josine Verhoeven, Ph.D., a researcher in the department. of psychiatry at the Vrije University in Amsterdam.
Verhoeven said the exercise itself likely led to the favorable outcomes for those in the running group, but factors such as being outside, exposure to daylight, and setting and achieving goals also likely helped enhance the mental benefits.
When looking at somatic health outcomes [those relating to the body]running therapy outperformed antidepressants because it had several beneficial effects on somatic health, while side effects of antidepressant drugs actually reduced somatic health variables, Verhoeven added.
That’s because antidepressants have known side effects that include weight gain, increased blood pressure and decreased heart rate variability, she said. Runners World.
Despite the findings of this recent study, this shouldn’t cause people who need antidepressants to stop taking the medication, which can be very helpful in treating certain forms of depression, said Lindsay Lo, MD, a psychiatrist at Prairie Health-based in Colorado. She said Runners World that many factors enter into the diagnosis and treatment of depression, including the role of lifestyle behaviors and medication use.
Also, if you’re currently taking antidepressants and want to try tapering off those medications with a strategy like exercise, definitely check with your doctor because you have to taper off those medications gradually, not stop them suddenly, by law.
In general, more exercise such as running can be an effective adjunct to depression therapy, but it’s important to tailor your approach based on your individual situation and get guidance from healthcare professionals along the way.
One interesting aspect of our study was that most patients chose running as an intervention, but many had difficulty completing the 16 weeks, Verhoeven said. I think this shows how difficult it is to change behavior and this is true for everyone, but especially for depressed people. That’s why they now offer running therapy for patients with depression, so they have personal guidance when trying this intervention.
Elizabeth Millard is a freelance writer focusing on health, wellness, fitness and food.
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