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New Study Suggests Running Might Be as Effective for Depression as Medication


Depression affects many individuals, with varying degrees of severity. For some, it may be situational or mild, not requiring extensive treatment. However, others experience clinical depression, necessitating psychological therapy and/or specific medications. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 8.3% of adults in the United States experience a major depressive episode each year, and the CDC reports that 13.2% of adults take an antidepressant. Given its prevalence, improving depression treatments is a significant area of interest for scientists.

Running as a Potential Treatment for Depression

Researchers in Amsterdam conducted a study to determine whether running could be as beneficial as taking an antidepressant for improving depression and anxiety symptoms. The study involved more than 100 participants who followed 16-week regimens of either running therapy or taking an antidepressant. After 16 weeks, both groups showed similar improvements in their symptoms. These findings were presented at the ECNP Congress in Barcelona, Spain, and published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

Study Design and Participant Selection

The study recruited 141 participants diagnosed with either depression or anxiety disorder. Participants could choose between taking an antidepressant (SSRIs such as escitalopram or sertraline) or joining a running group. Those without a preference were assigned to a group by the researchers. Ultimately, 96 participants joined the running group, while 45 opted for antidepressants.

Participants in the running group attended 45-minute running sessions two to three times a week, wearing heart rate monitors to track their participation. The antidepressant group started with escitalopram and switched to sertraline if the initial medication was ineffective or not well-tolerated. All participants provided blood samples, underwent psychiatric evaluations, and completed self-evaluations to assess their mental states.

Physical Activity and Mental Health

Depression and anxiety are common mental health issues that also affect physical health. Physical activity can be beneficial by increasing endorphins, chemicals produced by the body that boost mood. The study aimed to determine if running therapy could provide similar benefits to pharmacological treatments for depression.

Findings: Running vs. Antidepressants

The study found that both treatment options resulted in similar improvements in depression symptoms. In the running group, 43.3% of participants saw their depression go into remission, compared to 44.8% in the antidepressant group. Anxiety symptoms improved more quickly in the antidepressant group, but the overall improvement at the end of the 16-week study was nearly identical for both groups.

However, adherence to the treatment plans varied. While 82.2% of the antidepressant group adhered to their medication protocol, only 52.1% of the running group completed the minimum required exercise sessions. Despite this, the running group experienced additional physical health benefits, such as weight loss, improved lung function, reduced blood pressure, and reduced heart rate. Conversely, the antidepressant group experienced weight gain and increased blood pressure.

The Importance of Exercise in Depression Treatment

The study highlights the significance of exercise for individuals with depression and anxiety. Physical activity not only improves mental health but also enhances physical well-being. Exercise increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a molecule that supports neuroplasticity and maintains normal mood. Both antidepressants and running can boost BDNF levels, suggesting a combination of treatments could provide synergistic benefits.

Challenges and Considerations

The lower adherence to the running protocol indicates challenges in maintaining an exercise regimen. Understanding why participants dropped out can help refine future interventions to improve adherence. Factors such as motivation, physical limitations, and access to resources may influence individuals’ ability to stick with an exercise program.

No One-Size-Fits-All Approach

While the study provides valuable insights, it underscores that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to treating depression. Individual preferences, responses to treatment, and specific circumstances play a crucial role in determining the most effective approach. Combining physical activity with other treatments may offer a comprehensive strategy for managing depression.


The study comparing running therapy to antidepressants reveals that both treatments can effectively improve depression symptoms. Running offers additional physical health benefits, highlighting the importance of exercise in mental health management. However, adherence to exercise regimens can be challenging, and individual treatment plans should be tailored to each person’s needs. Ongoing research and personalized approaches are essential for advancing depression treatment and improving outcomes for those affected by this condition.

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