Wellness & Education

Running From Depression

Depression is an illness that harms both the mind and the body. People with depression are more likely to suffer from neck or back pain. They tend to have unhealthy habits leading to poor physical health. They may lead a sedentary lifestyle, eat poorly, smoke or drink alcohol in excess.

Not everyone with depression has these issues, of course, but the numbers show that they are at a higher risk. It’s not clear if pain and poor physical habits contribute to depression or if depression leads to poor physical habits and pain. It’s possible that the link goes both ways. It’s possible that the link goes both ways. In fact, the more researchers look at depression, the more likely this seems.

Running Vs Medication

Thoughts about the mind/body link led scientists to ask the question: “If bad physical habits are linked with depression, could better habits be used to treat depression?” When it comes to exercise, the answer seems to be: “yes”. Recently, researchers found that supervised running can be as effective as medication when treating mild to moderate depression. Antidepressants or running therapy: Comparing effects on mental and physical health in patients with depression and anxiety disorders – PubMed (nih.gov)

Why is this discovery so important?

The current toolbox for treating depression leaves a lot to be desired. Anti-depressant medications and psychotherapy, the two most common forms of treatment, don’t always help. Only 54% of patients on anti-depressants have their symptoms cut in half. Psychotherapy helps only 62% of patients recover from depression. Treatment outcomes for depression: challenges and opportunities – The Lancet Psychiatry

Running: How Much is Enough?

Telling a patient to “just go run”, of course, isn’t the same as using running as a form of treatment. To help patients stick to the change, researchers conducted 45 minute group-based running sessions. The goal was for patients to run two to three times a week for 16 weeks.

How do Running and Medication Compare?

Research results were surprising related to this comparison. They showed that running was as effective as anti-depressants for those who stuck to it. Unfortunately, “sticking to it” was the problem. While 82 percent of the patients on anti-depressants continued to take their medication, only 52 percent of runners stuck with running.

When researchers looked at the impact on physical health, running was far superior to medication. Runners showed greater improvements in lung function, weight, waist circumference, blood pressure, heart rate and other measures.


Scientists who conducted the study did NOT conclude that running should replace medication. Instead, they recommended that running be used along with traditional therapies. Several points help support their recommendation:

  • Taking a pill is much easier than running (which explains why patients are more likely to stick to it.)
  • Much more research has been done on medication than has been done on running, so its benefits are well documented.
  • Running, like medication, doesn’t help everyone, even those who stick to it.
  • Running may add to the effectiveness of medication and psychotherapy or help when these treatments do not.

Given the high percentage of patients who don’t respond to either medication or psychotherapy, it’s good to know that supervised running has the potential to contribute to the relief of depression. Running may be especially important when traditional methods aren’t working or aren’t working enough.