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Exercise Therapy to Treat Depression – Program of a University of Potsdam Study to Be Recommended for Statutory Health Insurance Coverage for the First Time

A group of people doing sports
Photo : AdobeStock/contrastwerkstatt
Exercise therapy can help treat mental illnesses.

There will be a new treatment option for people suffering from mild to moderate depression in the future. The innovation commission of the Federal Joint Committee (“Gemeinsamer Bundesauschuss” –the German decision-making body for healthcare regulations) has recommended exercise therapy accompanied by psychotherapists as an alternative to exclusively treating patients in psychotherapy sessions. This decision was based on the results of the STEP.De project funded by the innovation commission and spearheaded by a research group at the University of Potsdam. The project study showed that exercise therapy can effectively complement and, for the most part, even replace psychotherapy to treat mild or moderate depression. The Federal Joint Committee will now have 12 months to define the details of the new treatment approach as a regular service covered by statutory health insurance. A team working with Potsdam sports and health scientist Dr. Andreas Heißel is already ensuring that STEP exercise therapy is made available and widely established as a treatment option.

According to estimates, over five million people are affected by depression in Germany alone – with numbers on the rise. However, waiting periods for psychotherapy can be several months long and it is not always a suitable treatment option for every individual. To change that, the two leaders of the study, Prof. Dr. Michael Rapp and Dr. Andreas Heißel from the University of Potsdam, together with scientists from a consortium of health insurance companies and research institutions investigated the extent to which exercise therapy can help close this care gap. The advantage: Access to exercise therapy and preventive health training is quick and easy. What had been missing so far was evidence for an exercise therapy program proven and tested in a mental health setting. That is why the researchers initiated the STEP.De study on sport and exercise therapy to treat depression: Almost 400 patients received either exercise or psychotherapy to treat their mild to moderate depression as part of the study. The most important part: psychotherapists also accompanied the exercise therapy group.

The results were very clear, as summarized by Andreas Heißel: “Both therapy approaches have been proven to be very effective – and they are definitely on par, even six months later. It was a surprise for us that only about 20 percent of those who did exercise therapy subsequently started psychotherapy.” Conversely, 80 percent of patients did not need further treatment after four months of exercise therapy, whereas psychotherapy continued in most cases.

The chair of the innovation commission and impartial chair of the Federal Joint Committee, Prof. Josef Hecken, commented: “The results of the STEP.De project study are so compelling, that we, as the innovation commission, are emphatically in favor of transferring its findings into regular care covered by statutory health insurance.”

The STEP.De project was the first case in which the innovation commission determined that the Federal Joint Committee was in charge of transferring the results into regular care covered by statutory health insurance. With this decision, the commission goes beyond its previous recommendation to the Federal Joint Committee to take the results into consideration. Due to existing legal provisions, the Federal Joint Committee will now be obligated to incorporate the successfully proven, new care option into regular care by adjusting the relevant regulations within twelve months.

Shortly after the conclusion of the STEP.De study, Andreas Heißel and his team had already begun to further establish the effective treatment option. With the support of Potsdam Transfer, the central scientific institution for start-ups, innovation, and knowledge and technology transfer at the University of Potsdam, Heißel founded the Center for Emotional Health Germany (“Zentrum für emotionale Gesundheit Deutschland”). The company links the various actors of the health care sector, ensures the quality of the program, and now offers exercise and psychotherapists advanced professional training on how to treat individuals with mental illnesses in the context of the study as an online certificate course.

Dr. Andreas Heißel, postdoctoral researcher at the Chair for Social and Preventive Medicine
Phone: +49 331 977-4049
E-mail: andreas.heisseluni-potsdamde

Media information: 21-09-2023 / No. 096