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Sport as Medicine – New Findings on Therapy for Depression

More and more people worldwide suffer from depression. Often, the illness remains untreated. In the future, however, sports could represent another treatment option alongside medication and psychotherapy. In a comprehensive study, Dr. Andreas Heissel, research associate at the Chair of Social and Preventive Medicine at the University of Potsdam, together with renowned colleagues from Australia, Belgium, Great Britain, Sweden and Brazil, evaluated studies on the effectiveness of sports interventions on depressive symptoms. They have now published the results in an article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, the world’s leading scientific journal in the field of sports medicine and science.

Depression is a widespread mental illness that is associated with a reduced quality of life and often with further illnesses and increased mortality. It causes high costs, for example through incapacity to work and the treatment of secondary illnesses. Since the COVID 19 pandemic, depression has increased significantly, but the disease remains untreated in more than two-thirds of adults diagnosed with it.

A large number of individual studies have already shown that exercise could be an effective treatment option for reducing depressive symptoms in patients. In their study, Heissel and his colleagues have now systematically evaluated 41 studies with a total of 2,264 adult participants, which makes their work the most recent and comprehensive work on the available studies. Their focus was on the impact of sports interventions on depressive symptoms in patients compared with non-active individuals in control groups. The evaluation shows that sports interventions have moderate to strong effects on depressive symptoms and thus a comparable effect to psychotherapy or medication. The greatest effects are seen in sports interventions that are supervised by specialist staff, carried out in a group setting, and practiced at moderate intensity, as well as programs involving endurance sports. For the large number of people with untreated depression, including those who refuse or are intolerant to medication and/or psychotherapy, sports interventions thus represent an additional evidence-based treatment option.

The group still sees a need for research in long-term follow-up studies, as well as studies in the context of care with psychotherapy or medication in the comparison groups, which are necessary to show that sports interventions are not inferior to current first-line treatments in their (sustained) efficacy. The potential synergistic effects of exercise and sport should also be considered, e.g. in relation to the musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems as well as the brain.

The work of Heissel and colleagues has now been published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, the world’s most prestigious peer-reviewed scientific journal in the field of sports medicine and science. The results could therefore be included in guidelines and recommendations from, for example, the WHO.

Link to publication: Exercise as medicine for depressive symptoms? A systematic review and meta- analysis with meta-regression, Dr. Andreas Heissel, Darlene Heinen, Luisa Leonie Brokmeier, Nora Skarabis, Prof. Maria Kangas, Prof. Davy Vancampfort, Dr. Brendon Stubbs , Prof. Joseph Firth, Prof. Philip B Ward, Prof. Simon Rosenbaum, Prof. Mats Hallgren, Prof. Felipe Schuch, British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2.2.2023, doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2022-106282

Contact: Dr. Andreas Heissel, Professor for Social and Preventive Medicine
Tel.: 0331 977-4049
Email: andreas.heisseluni-potsdamde

Media Information 02-02-2023 / No. 013