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Is exercise or medication better for managing depression?

A study found that antidepressants and running both work for managing depression, but one might be better than the other for overall health.
Is exercise or medication better for managing depression?
Posted at 11:22 AM, Oct 13, 2023

Does running do a better job of curing depression than antidepressant medication? That was the question posed by scientists from the Vrije University in Amsterdam.

According to the findings recently published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, running is just as effective as antidepressants, plus it comes with added benefits. Professor Brenda Penninx presented her findings to the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology.

The study enrolled 141 patients with depression or anxiety. They were offered the choice of running regularly or taking antidepressants for 16 weeks. Forty-five of the participants opted for the medicine, while 96 signed up to run.

The study noted that only about half of the participants stuck with a running regimen, while four out of five on medication continued taking it at the end of the 16 weeks.

At the end of the 16-week period, about 44% of people in both groups showed improvement with depression and anxiety. What the study noted, however, was that those who ran had improved weight, waist circumference, blood pressure, and heart function. Those who took the medication actually saw some deterioration in these markers, the study noted.

SEE MORE: Ultra-processed foods, artificial sweeteners tied to depression

Professor Brenda Penninx said in a release that the antidepressants still work, but running and exercise could be a viable alternative.

"Both interventions helped with the depression to around the same extent," Penninx said. "Antidepressants generally had worse impact on body weight, heart rate variability, and blood pressure, whereas running therapy led to improved effect[s] on general fitness and heart rate, for instance. We are currently looking in more detail for effects on biological aging and processes of inflammation."

Even though the benefits of exercise were evident, it was harder for people to stick with working out compared to those who simply took medication.

"Telling patients to go run is not enough," Penninx added. "Changing physical activity behavior will require adequate supervision and encouragement, as we did by implementing exercise therapy in a mental health care institution."

Of course, getting people to exercise remains a challenge. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that just 24.2% of U.S. adults meet guidelines for both aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity.

The CDC advises adults to get at least 150 minutes of moderate—or 75 minutes of vigorous—physical activity a week in addition to two days of strength training.


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