Regular physical activity is known to boost mental health. Adding more evidence to the link, a study that compared running exercise to antidepressants in the treatment of anxiety and depression found both therapies equally beneficial.

Although the results of mental health outcomes were comparable in the study, running therapy slightly outperformed antidepressants in terms of other factors of physical health such as weight, waist circumference and cardiovascular function.

The trial was conducted among 141 patients with depression and/or anxiety. They were given a choice of treatment – SSRI antidepressants (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) or group-based running therapy for 16 weeks. The findings were published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

"This study gave anxious and depressed people a real-life choice, medication or exercise. Interestingly, the majority opted for exercise, which led to the numbers in the running group being larger than in the medication group," Professor Brenda Penninx, from Vrije University in Amsterdam, said in a news release.

However, there was a higher dropout rate in the group that initially chose exercise over antidepressants. Only 52% in the running group adhered to the therapy, while the rate of adherence was 82% in the antidepressant group.

"At the end of the trial, around 44% in both groups showed an improvement in depression and anxiety, however, the running group also showed improvements in weight, waist circumference, blood pressure, and heart function, whereas the antidepressant group showed a tendency towards a slight deterioration in these metabolic markers," the news release said.

Since the patients themselves selected the therapy option, comparisons between the groups may be biased, making it a less randomized study.

"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 randomized study. For example, patients in the antidepressant group were more depressed, which might be associated with less chance of persisting engagement in the exercises," said Dr. Eric Ruhe, from Amsterdam University Medical Centers, who was not part of the study.

The study does not suggest the use of running exercise as a replacement for antidepressants, but it can be considered as an additional treatment option.

"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. Nevertheless, we need to extend our treatment arsenal 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," added Penninx, who presented the study at the ECNP (European College of Neuropsychopharmacology) conference in Barcelona.