This is a first: a study carried out by Dutch researchers compared the effects of antidepressants to those of sport, in particular running, against depression. And surprise: sport seems to be better for your health.
Exercising is good for your physical health. But what about mental health? Researchers at the University of Vrije in Amsterdam, Netherlands, looked at the beneficial effects of running on depression.
Comparing antidepressants and running
The scientists studied a group of 141 volunteers suffering from depression or anxiety, who were given the choice of taking antidepressants for 16 weeks or undergoing group therapy for the same duration.
“Interestingly, the majority opted for exercise, which explains the greater number of volunteers in the running group than in the medication group” explains Professor Brenda Penninx, who presented this work at the European Congress on Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP) conference, which was held from October 7 to 10 in Barcelona.. In fact, 45 of them chose medication compared to 96 who preferred group therapy, namely running.
The scientists wanted, through this work, “compare how exercise or antidepressants affect your overall health, not just your mental health.”
Is sport more effective than antidepressants?
For 16 weeks, the first group took an antidepressant, Escitalopram SSRI, that is to say an antidepressant that selectively inhibits serotonin reuptake. The second group completed two to three closely monitored 45-minute running sessions each week.
At the end of the trial, about 44% of participants in both groups showed improvements in depression and anxiety, but the running group also showed improvements in their weight, waist circumference, blood pressure and heart function.
In contrast, the antidepressant group showed a slight trend toward deterioration in these metabolic markers. “Both interventions helped depression to about the same extent.” explains the author of the work. But she nevertheless notes a significant advantage to the practice of running. “Antidepressants generally had a lesser impact on body weight, heart rate variability and blood pressure, while running therapy led to a better effect on general fitness and heart rate for example.”
Encourage sports practice against depression
These conclusions do not lead Professor Penninx to question the effectiveness of antidepressants. “Antidepressants are generally safe and effective. However, we need to expand our treatment arsenal because not all patients respond to or are willing to take antidepressants.” she believes.
For her, sports practice should be “taken seriously” in the treatment of depression. The author, however, recognizes the difficulty that this can represent for certain patients. “The study shows that many people like the idea of exercising, but it can be difficult to follow through with, even if the benefits are great. Telling patients to run is not enough. We need to change patients’ behavior towards physical activity by putting in place adequate supervision and encouragement as we have done.” she concludes.