There’s no doubt running – or any exercise, for that matter – is good for mental health. From elevating your mood (the “runner’s high” is real!) to reducing stress, study after study shows the benefits of training are not just physical. “Running is my therapy” is a common refrain, implying that some endurance athletes can use training to manage their mental health. That’s a great thing! But can running flat-out replace certain mental health treatments, like antidepressant medication? A new study is getting a lot of attention for asking just that.
Titled “Antidepressants or running therapy: Comparing effects on mental and physical health in patients with depression and anxiety disorders,” the researchers behind the study investigated the impact of running on two of the most common mental health issues: depression, which affects more than 21 million American adults each year; and anxiety, which affects 42.5 million American adults, according to Mental Health America. Of those, an estimated 56% do not receive treatment, and we know from additional research that mental health issues are more prevalent in the endurance athlete community.
Here, I summarize the findings of the current study on running vs. antidepressants and suggest some other ways to help those dealing with depression and anxiety.
Summary of the study
The study was set up to compare the impact of antidepressants and running therapy on mental and physical health over 16 weeks. Participants were ages 18-70 with a diagnosed depressive disorder or anxiety disorder. Prior to the study, participants did not exercise more than once per week and weren’t currently taking antidepressants. They were divided into two groups:
- An antidepressant group
- A running therapy group
For the antidepressant group, medications were prescribed and monitored by a psychiatrist. The running therapy group involved at least two 45-minute running sessions per week, and education on injury, sleep, and nutrition.