People with mental health problems are being encouraged to run to improve their emotional wellbeing instead of turning to antidepressants, academics have said.

A study from Vrije University in Amsterdam has found that running for 16 weeks works just as well as antidepressant drugs for treating depression and anxiety.

In addition, the research also shows that jogging is associated with good physical health outcomes, such as a smaller waist circumference, better heart function, improved weight and blood pressure.

However, people on antidepressants experienced a decline in these metabolic markers, the study has reported.

More than 140 people with depression and/or anxiety took part in the trial and followed one of two treatment programmes for 16 weeks.

A total of 45 participants opted to take the antidepressant serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) Escitalopram.

Meanwhile, the remaining 96 participants decided to join the running programme, which included up to three sessions of supervised 45-minute sessions per week.

Nearly 45% of the participants in each group improved their depression and anxiety, the results have revealed.

According to the findings, those in the running group also boosted their physical health, while the participants in the antidepressant group showed a deterioration.

Approximately 52% of the people in the running group completed the full schedule, while 82% of the participants in the antidepressant group fully adhered to the programme.

Lead author Professor Brenda Penninx said: “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.”

She added: “We found that most people are compliant in taking antidepressants, whereas around half of the running group adhered to the two-times-a-week exercise therapy. Telling patients to go run is not enough. Changing physical activity behaviour will require adequate supervision and encouragement. 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.”

She concluded: “Nevertheless, we need to extend our treatment 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.”

Dr Eric Ruhe from Amsterdam University Medical Centres commented: “These are very interesting results that again show that physical health can influence mental health and that treatment of depression and anxiety can be achieved by exercising, obviously without the adverse effects of antidepressant drugs. However, several remarks are important.

“First the patients followed their preference, which is common practice, but ideally we should advise patients what will work best.”

He added: “Following this choice is understandable from a pragmatic point of view when patients have strong preferences, which you have to take into account when doing a study like this.

“The downside is that the comparisons between groups might be biased compared to doing this in a truly randomised study.”

He concluded: “For example, patients in the antidepressant group were more depressed which might be associated with less chance of persisting engagement in the exercises.

“So, we have to be careful not to over-interpret the comparisons between groups, which the authors acknowledge properly.

“Finally, a very important finding is the difference in adherence between the interventions: 52 per cent in the exercise group and 82 per cent in the antidepressant group. This shows that it is more difficult to change a lifestyle habit than taking a pill.

“This is not exclusively found in psychiatry, indicating that we also have to focus on how to improve compliance to healthy behaviour.

“This could have tremendous impact on healthcare more generally, but also on psychiatric diseases.”

These results were presented at the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology conference in Barcelona.

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