Can the famed “runner’s high” compete with the efficacy of antidepressant medications? A recent study conducted at Vrije University in Amsterdam suggests that exercise-induced euphoria might indeed rival the effects of antidepressants when it comes to managing anxiety, depression, and overall mental health.

The study involved 141 participants grappling with depression and/or anxiety. They were presented with a choice between taking SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) antidepressants or engaging in group-based running therapy over a 16-week period.

Remarkably, the majority of participants, a total of 96 individuals, opted for running, while 45 chose antidepressants. The findings, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders and unveiled at the ECNP Congress in Barcelona, indicate that both running and medication offer comparable benefits for mental health.

In terms of physical health, running therapy showcased improvements, whereas antidepressants exhibited a slightly negative impact. However, the study highlighted one caveat: running therapy had a significantly higher dropout rate compared to medication adherence.

Lead researcher Brenda Penninx, a professor from Vrije University, emphasized the study’s aim to assess the impact on general health, not just mental health. “This study gave anxious and depressed people a real-life choice, medication or exercise,” Penninx noted. “Interestingly, the majority opted for exercise, which led to the numbers in the running group being larger than in the medication group.”

The antidepressant group received Escitalopram (brand name Lexapro), a medication commonly prescribed for depression and generalized anxiety disorder. Meanwhile, the running group participated in two to three closely supervised 45-minute group sessions per week.

Ultimately, after the 16-week period, approximately 44% of individuals in both groups reported improvements in their depression and anxiety symptoms. While both interventions were similarly effective for depression, antidepressants exhibited adverse effects on body weight, heart rate variability, and blood pressure. In contrast, running therapy led to improved general fitness and heart rate.

Penninx emphasized, “Our findings should not be interpreted to suggest that all depressed individuals can simply discontinue medication and transition to running.” She encouraged patients seeking to reduce their reliance on antidepressants to consult with a healthcare professional, as it may not be the suitable approach for everyone with depression.

Penninx noted, “Some people clearly benefit from antidepressants, other people may benefit from running therapy, and others may need both to recover from depression.” She highlighted the importance of incorporating lifestyle treatments like running therapy more extensively into mental health care.

This study underscores the potential of physical activity in managing and alleviating depression, providing valuable insights into alternative approaches for individuals seeking to improve their mental well-being without the potential side effects of medication.