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Exercise is seen as a great way to support your mental health across the board. While the exact links between mental health and exercise aren’t totally clear, it’s been shown to improve mood and lower anxiety. Exercise triggers the brain to release a flood of endorphins, marijuana-like brain chemicals (endogenous cannabinoids) and other feel-good chemicals. It can also be a nice distraction, pulling your thoughts away from negativity. Meeting exercise goals can give you more confidence, and exercise can be a way to increase social interaction. Plus, it can be a healthy coping strategy.
But can exercise actually be as effective as medication to fight certain mental illnesses?
In February, the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (try saying that five times fast) released a study in the Journal of Affective Disorders, where they observed 141 participants to compare the effects of regular running and regular antidepressant use on people with depression and anxiety. The study involved 45 participants taking antidepressants and 96 going for regular runs; every participant got to choose which treatment program they’d follow. The group taking medication was given a common antidepressant called an SSRI, and the runners had regularly scheduled 45-minute sessions; both groups had a 16-week schedule.
Let’s take a look at the results – about 52% of the running group fully stuck to the program, but 82% of those on medication stuck with their program. Apart from that, the researchers collected data showing that running may be just as effective as meds, both having pros and cons when it comes to treating mental illness. According to the study, both treatments helped ease depression and anxiety to a similar degree, but running also helped with physical health – while SSRIs had some small negative effects on body health.
“Antidepressants are generally safe and effective,” said study author Brenda Penninx, a professor and epidemiologist at Vrije University in Amsterdam. “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.”