Key Takeaways Key Takeaways
  • Traditional treatments such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) have decades of proven effectiveness in treating Major Depressive Disorder and other conditions.

  • Some research suggests that exercise, specifically running, could be more effective than traditional methods in treating Depression.

  • While running offers mental well-being boosts, it’s not a universal solution for clinical Depression and shouldn’t necessarily replace established therapies or antidepressants.

Can Running Treat Depression?

According to NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), 8.3% US adults experience a major depressive episode every year. Additionally, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) report 13.2% US adults take an antidepressant.

The most popular Depression Treatment approach for most is through a combination of therapy, typically Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Depression Medication such as antidepressants. In recent years, however, we have seen an increase in holistic or non-medication treatment approaches to Depression.

One example of such treatment is running and exercise. This has led to the link between Depression and running being explored more extensively.

Many are looking to answer the question, is exercising, running specifically, as successful in treating depression as therapy or medication? How does running really measure up against the long-standing pillars of psychiatric treatment? Can the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other truly be a game-changer for clinical mental health conditions? Let’s find out.

Running as a Remedy

Over the past few years, there’s been a palpable uptick in the number of articles, studies, and personal testimonies spotlighting the benefits of running for mental health. From celebrity endorsements to heartfelt stories on social media, the narrative is almost inescapable: hit the tracks to wave goodbye to the blues.

This surge in attention isn’t without merit, and a closer inspection brings us to some striking research. For instance, the Global Wellness Institute, a reputable name in health and wellness, has presented a compelling argument linking exercise and Depression treatments. Specifically, it suggests that running might be a whopping 1.5 times more effective in battling Depression than traditional medication and therapy combined.

Another study recently conducted in Amsterdam sought to explore whether running therapy could be as helpful as antidepressants for treating Depression and Anxiety symptoms.

Researchers enlisted over 100 participants with one cohort engaging in running therapy with the other cohort using antidepressants. Each cohort adhered to 16-week programs, and at the end of the 16-week period, the researchers observed comparable enhancements in symptoms for both groups.

When looking at adherence to treatment plans, however, it was found adherence to running therapy as a treatment plan was lower overall. Of the participants, 82.2% in the antidepressant group adhered to the medication protocol, but only 52.1% in the running therapy group completed the required exercise sessions.

These findings and claims are monumental, shifting the spotlight onto a holistic approach to mental well-being. This paradigm change has left many wondering whether some good old-fashioned exercise is actually a miracle cure. While this possibility is intriguing – and one that many of us want to believe – the science doesn’t always hold up.

The Tried and Trusted Traditional Treatment Methods

Before we get swept up in the wave of these newfound claims, let’s not forget our old, trusty allies in the battle against depression. Therapy for depression, including Psychotherapy, and Medication Management have been the mainstay for decades. And with good reason.

You’ve probably heard of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)—maybe you’ve even received it. It’s not just some passing trend. CBT has been a cornerstone in Mental Health treatment, particularly for those wrestling with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), Anxiety, and countless other mental health disorders. A look into the research shows stories of individuals who’ve found solace and healing through the structured approach of CBT.

There’s a certain comfort in the tried and true. While it’s exciting to entertain the idea of new remedies, many of these running studies refer to the relief of some ‘symptoms’ of depression, meaning they don’t tackle the root cause. For many people living with the condition, the suggestion that running and Depression are linked, that exercise might be the solution, is unimaginable.

While a brisk jog in the park has its merits, there’s undeniable value in the more traditional routes to mental wellness. After all, there’s a reason they’ve stood the test of time. Depression is a spectrum, and while a run might be enough to shake yourself out of a funk, it probably won’t be enough to cure clinical cases.

How to Manage Depression Without Medication?

Alongside the buzz around running and depression comes a noticeable desire to avoid pills and medication in life. Who can blame us? The allure of natural remedies and non-pharmaceutical interventions feels refreshing, offering a glimmer of hope in a sometimes medication-heavy world. The charm lies in the promise of healing without potential side effects and the empowering idea of taking control of your mental health journey.

While there’s no denying that running is incredible for mental well-being (after all, they don’t call it a runner’s high for nothing), it doesn’t replace the heavyweight champions of proven therapies. For people struggling with debilitating levels of Depression, getting out of bed can be exhausting. Going on a run may well feel impossible.

The Benefits and Setbacks of Running as a Treatment for Depression

Picture this: you’ve just finished a satisfying run. Heart racing, the good kind of sweat on your brow, and you’re floating on those endorphins, feeling comforted and accomplished about setting a pace and finding a routine amidst the whirlwind of life. These are some of the central benefits of regular running: self-satisfaction and a healthy high.

On the flip side, not everyone’s going to feel transformed after running. We’re all a mix of different traits and what sends one person to cloud nine might feel like hell to another. Keeping up with a consistent exercise routine is ideal on paper, but on a day when the weight of Depression feels like a ten-ton backpack, even pulling on those running shoes can feel like a marathon. Running therapy requires consistency, and this has proved to be a barrier for some.

A study recently conducted in Amsterdam sought to explore whether running therapy could be as helpful as antidepressants for treating Depression and Anxiety symptoms.

Researchers enlisted over 100 participants with one cohort engaging in running therapy with the other cohort using antidepressants. Each cohort adhered to 16-week programs, and at the end of the 16-week period, the researchers observed comparable enhancements in symptoms for both groups.

When looking at adherence to treatment plans, however, it was found adherence to running therapy as a treatment plan was lower overall. Of the participants 82.2% in the antidepressant group adhered to the medication protocol, but only 52.1% in the running therapy group completed the required exercise sessions.

So, what’s the reality? There is no denying that running is a great addition to your mental wellness toolkit, but depending solely on running might not cut it for everyone. For some people, starting regular exercise at the hint of the onset of Depression might ward off their demons. For others, Medication Management and Psychotherapy for Depression are a lifeline.

Finding Your Footing

Navigating the nuanced world of mental health requires more than a one-size-fits-all solution. All you can do is do what feels right for you, and if running is a part of that, then great! Just don’t let this shift to exercise as a solution push you to ditch the prescription prematurely. If you feel a little lost, seeking support from mental health professionals can offer some guidance by offering information about the treatment options available, and helping you make an informed decision.

Authored By 

LifeStance Health
LifeStance Health

LifeStance is a mental healthcare company focused on providing evidence-based, medically driven treatment services for children, adolescents, and adults suffering from a variety of mental health issues in an outpatient care setting, both in-person and through its digital health telemedicine offering.


Reviewed By

Nicholette Leanza, LPCC-S
Nicholette Leanza, LPCC-S

Nicholette is a faculty member at John Carroll University’s Clinical Counseling program, and she is also the host of the LifeStance podcast, Convos from the Couch.