Running is an Effective Treatment for Depression


    A new study supports several previous studies showing that running is as effective as anti-depressant drugs in treating depression and anxiety, and offers far more health benefits than drugs do (J Affective Disorders, May, 2023;329(15):19-29). The study included 141 participants, average age 38, in which 45 participants received the antidepressant medication Lexapro (escitalopram), and 96 underwent 16 weeks of supervised 45-minute outdoor running sessions recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the American College of Sports Medicine.
    • 43 percent of the runners and 44 percent of the medication-takers had significant improvement in their depressive symptoms.
    • The runners benefited by losing more weight, having greater reduction in their waist circumference, having lower systolic and diastolic blood pressures, having lower heart rate and lower harmful heart rate variability.
    • 82.2 percent of the antidepressant group still needed treatment drugs, compared to only 52.1 percent of the running group who completed at least 22 running sessions. Anti-depressant medications can cause weight gain, rapid and irregular heartbeats and both high and low blood pressure. However, depressed people are far more likely to stick to taking drugs than they are to remain in a running program.

    An Exercise Program can Enhance the Benefits of Medications and Psychotherapy
    Antidepressant medication and psychotherapy are the standard treatments for depression and anxiety today (Int Clin Psychopharmacol, 2015;30:183-192). However, antidepressants are often not effective even when they are prescribed for long-term use, and they often have significant adverse side effects (Auton Neurosci, 2017;208:117-125). Many previous studies have shown that exercise can elevate mood and even improve cases of depression (Disabil Rehabil, 2015;10.3109/09638288:1490-1495). Exercise can also help to relieve anxiety (Ann Behav Med, 2015;49:542-556).

    Exercise has other benefits for treating depression. It helps because the majority of depressed people live a sedentary lifestyle that increases their risk for heart disease and premature death (Disabil Rehabil, 2015;10.3109/09638288:972579). A review of 97 studies of 128,119 participants found that a supervised group exercise program offers support and socialization that should enhance treatment for depressed and anxious people (British J Spts Med, Feb 16, 2023;57:1203-1209). Exercise also reduces some of the side effects of antidepressant drugs, such as serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) that cause weight gain (J Clin Psychiatry, 2010.10.4088/JCP.09r05346blu) and increase inflammation that can cause heart attacks (Eur Neuropsychopharmacol, 2008;18:917-924) and diabetes (Curr Diab Rep, 2008;8:7-11).

    My Recommendations
    Treating anxiety and depression with drugs and psychotherapy is more effective than doing nothing. However, this treatment combination has a high failure rate and high rate of recurrence (Pharmacol Res Perspect, June 2019;7(3):e00472). Adding a group exercise program to existing treatments with medications and psychotherapy will provide socialization and health benefits that may improve the patient’s outcome.