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Exercise as good as antidepressants for mental health, claim scientists

Having comfortable, weather-appropriate clothing can help you feel more prepared and motivated. (Photo: BGStock72 - stock.adobe.com)

Having comfortable, weather-appropriate clothing can help you feel more prepared and motivated. (Photo: BGStock72 – stock.adobe.com)

Going for a run is as good – if not better – for boosting mental health than taking antidepressants, according to the first study of its kind.

Researchers from Vrije University in Amsterdam found 44 per cent of people with depression and anxiety started to feel better if they spent 16 weeks going on runs, or 16 weeks taking antidepressants. Participants either joined a supervised running group two or three times a week, or took SSRI escitalopram as prescribed.

The majority picked exercise, and their treatment also improved their weight, waist circumference, blood pressure and heart function. Meanwhile, people who took antidepressants tended to become less fit.

However experts insisted that telling patients to go run is not enough, noting that a larger portion of the runners dropped out, with just 52 percent sticking to the plan versus 82 percent of those taking the pills.

Speaking at European College of Neuropsychopharmacology conference in Barcelona, Professor Brenda Penninx said: “We wanted to compare how exercise or antidepressants affect your general health, not just your mental health.

“This study gave anxious and depressed people a real-life choice, medication or exercise. Interestingly, the majority opted for exercise, which led to the numbers in the running group being larger than in the medication group. Both interventions helped with the depression to around the same extent. Antidepressants generally had worse impact on body weight, heart rate variability and blood pressure, whereas running therapy led to improved effect on general fitness and heart rate for instance.

“We are currently looking in more detail for effects on biological ageing and processes of inflammation. It is important to say that there is room for both therapies in care for depression.

“The study shows that lots of people like the idea of exercising, but it can be difficult to carry this through, even though the benefits are significant.

“Telling patients to go run is not enough. Changing physical activity behaviour will require adequate supervision and encouragement as we did by implementing exercise therapy in a mental health care institution.”

Her team offered 141 depression and or anxiety patients a choice of SSRI antidepressants for 16 weeks, or running in a group two or three times a week for the same period of time. Overall, 45 selected medication and 96 running. Those who chose medication were slightly more depressed than the runners.

The antidepressant group had to take SSRI escitalopram as prescribed for 16 weeks, but that did not generally impact on their daily behaviours. Meanwhile, runners aimed for two to three closely supervised 45 minute group sessions a week for 16 weeks.

The exercise tackled the sedentary lifestyle that often accompanies depression and anxiety, encouraging people to head outside, set goals, improve fitness and get involved in a group activity.

Professor Penninx added: “Antidepressants are generally safe and effective. They work for most people. We know that not treating depression at all leads to worse outcomes; so antidepressants are generally a good choice.

“Nevertheless, we need to extend our treatment arsenal as not all patients respond to antidepressants or are willing to take them.

“Our results suggest that implementing exercise therapy is something we should take much more seriously, as it could be a good – and maybe even better – choice for some of our patients. In addition, let’s also face potential side effects our treatments can have.

“Doctors should be aware of the dysregulation in nervous system activity that certain antidepressants can cause, especially in patients who already have heart problems.

“This also provides an argument to seriously consider tapering and discontinuing antidepressants when depressed or anxious episodes have remitted.

“In the end, patients are only truly helped when we are improving their mental health without unnecessarily worsening their physical health”.

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