Exercise and Mental Health (2016-2017)

College is a key developmental period for making decisions about whether one is going to lead an active or sedentary lifestyle. This is a critical decision: exercise is associated with a variety of mental health benefits including reduced stress reactivity; depressive, anxious and ADHD symptoms; and improvements in body image, self-esteem and academic performance. However, exercise is not beneficial to everyone at all times: some individuals exercise to a compulsive degree. Thus, research is needed to determine moderators (e.g., biological, psychosocial and exercise characteristics) of the relationship of exercise on positive mental health. Researchers need to better understand who will most benefit from exercise and for whom is it contraindicated. Knowledge of moderators of exercise benefit would help educators tailor exercise programs to those whom would most benefit and design specialized programs for vulnerable individuals.

This Bass Connections project team examined the impact of a strength training intervention on indices of mental health and body image in college students. The team conducted a study to assess the effects of the intervention on positive body image (PBI) and to examine factors that may be associated with greater improvement in PBI. Study participants were male (n=12) and female (n=26) students ages 18-25 who were previously inactive with no exercise limitations. Participants completed an eight-week program that included three full-body workouts per week and alternated biweekly between a traditional workout of free weight exercises and a functional workout using body weight and balance exercises.

Participants reported a significant improvement in body appreciation and satisfaction with physical capabilities. Males had lower pretest body image than females. Exercise motivations were significantly correlated with changes in PBI. Individuals with higher pretest appearance motivation and weight management motivation for exercise experienced less improvement in satisfaction with one’s capabilities. Participants with higher health motivation and strength and endurance motivation for exercise had less change in body surveillance.

Future studies should examine gender differences in PBI, compare changes in PBI for different types of exercise (e.g., cardio vs. strength training) and examine whether PBI confers protection from body image-related disorders.

Team members also created an Activity Finder application incorporating an extensive repository of physical activity opportunities in the local area into a searchable database for health practitioners, in order to help them provide more precise physical activity recommendations to their patients.


Summer 2016 – Spring 2017

Team Outcomes

Examining the Effect of Strength Training on Positive Body Image (Kim McNally, Nancy Zucker, Valerie Adams, Collean Trotter, Christina Williams, Kira Panzer)

Study examining positive body image and evaluating the effects of strength training (as compared to aerobic training) on body image

Activity Finder tool for pediatric healthcare providers to use when counseling young patients on increasing activity

Exercise and Mental Health (presentation by Kira Panzer, EHDx Talks, April 19, 2017)

Project website


Exercise and Mental Health

This Team in the News

Bass Connections Projects from Duke Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

See related team, Exercise and Mental Health (2017-2018).

Team Leaders

  • Kimberly McNally, Health, Wellness and Physical Education
  • Nancy Zucker, School of Medicine-Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

/graduate Team Members

  • Valerie Adams, Physical Therapy

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Kira Panzer, Neuroscience (BS), French Studies (AB2)
  • Collean Trotter, Chemistry (AB)
  • Christina Williams, Computer Science (BS)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Deborah Best, School of Medicine-Pediatrics
  • Sheri Branson, Arts & Sciences-Health, Wellness and Physical Education
  • Leigh Garstecki, Duke Recreational & Physical Education
  • Karen Murphy, Arts & Sciences-Psychology and Neuroscience