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How Running and Resistance Training Can Help Depression and Anxiety

  • May 21, 2024
  • Anxiety, Depression, Healthy living for mental well-being, Patients and Families
man and woman running

It is well-known that exercise or physical activity can help support mental health. It can help reduce symptoms, improve working memory and focus, and help prevent cognitive decline. New research points to specific significant benefits for treating depression and anxiety symptoms with running and resistance training. Resistance training, also called strength training or weight training, uses resistance to build muscle strength and anaerobic endurance.

A 2023 study comparing the effectiveness of a running therapy program with an antidepressant medication found similar effectiveness for the two approaches in addressing depression symptoms. Participants included 141 individuals with depression and/or anxiety; 45 received antidepressant medication and 96 received running therapy. The running therapy consisted of a 16-week program with 45-minute supervised outdoor running sessions 2 to 3 times per week. After a warm-up period, participants undertook 30 minutes of running within their targeted heart rate (50-70% of heart rate reserve* for the first 4 weeks, then 70-85% for the remaining 12 weeks).

The study found that medication treatment and running therapy had similar effects on mental health symptoms, however, running therapy outperformed antidepressants on physical health. The authors conclude that the study showed the importance of exercise in people with depression and anxiety and that exercise therapy is a valuable option for depression/anxiety treatment for both mental and physical health.

A separate study looking at the potential impacts of resistance training on mental health outcomes, specifically depression and anxiety. The systematic review and meta-analysis found that resistance training was able to improve mental health outcomes in individuals with and without mental disorders. Resistance training also offers many overall health benefits, including counteracting age-related decline in muscle mass and muscular strength, cardiorespiratory fitness and others, and it is widely recommended for older adults.

man and woman lifting weights

The resistance training interventions in the review ranged from eight weeks to 12 months with between one and three sessions per week. Each of the intervention sessions involved five to 14 exercises with one to three sets of six to 25 repetitions each. The researchers examined some of the specific features of the programs and found that three sessions per week, three sets of each exercise and fewer exercises in each session (five or six vs seven or more) were associated with greater mental health benefits.

Depression can make even minimal function challenging and heading out for a run or off to strength training might not seem within reach. Sports psychologist Megan Pietrucha, Psy.D., and sports writer Shelby Deering offer some suggestions for getting out for a run even when you’re coping with symptoms of depression. They suggest planning ahead, such as setting a goal, identifying barriers and solutions; connecting with a running partner or group; focusing on your surroundings; and giving yourself grace. Read more in Runners World.

* Heart rate reserve is the difference between a person’s maximum (peak) heart rate and resting heart rate.


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