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. Additionally, more research is needed to examine the appropriate exercise prescription or dose needed for risk reduction or a therapeutic effect. 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.

Project Description

This project team will examine the relationship between exercise and various mental health issues that impact children, adolescents and young adults such as body image, self-esteem, mood and eating disorder risk. The team will also study potential moderators and types of exercise programs that may enhance the impact of exercise on positive mental health, and will identify practical ways to disseminate findings.

Team members will examine the impact of a 10-week strength training program on indices of mental health and body image in college students. Moderators of intervention effect, such as eating disorder symptomatology and motivation for exercise, will be examined. Team members will incorporate an extensive repository of physical activity opportunities in the Triangle area into a searchable database for health practitioners to give more precise physical activity recommendations: an “activity finder” tool.

To date the team has made great progress on the Exercise and Body Image study and is building the Activity Finder application. Team members have completed data clean-up and data analysis for their primary research questions, and their hypotheses were supported. The strength training intervention was shown to lead to a significant improvement in positive body image. The effect of exercise on positive body image was moderated by participants’ motivation for exercise, such that participants with high appearance motivation had a significantly less positive body image.  The team is writing up the methods and results section for the manuscript.

In the spring semester, the project team will conduct another wave of data collection for the body image hypothesis to increase the male and control samples. Team members will add an aerobic training group and dependent measures to examine the effect of strength training and aerobic training on stress reactivity. The team will use both biological and psychosocial measures to examine stress reactivity.

Anticipated Outcomes

Conduct a research intervention to measure the effect of a specific exercise prescription on positive body image, self-esteem, mood and eating disorder risk in adolescents and generate a manuscript to submit for publication; create psychoeducational tools for healthcare providers and patients based on study findings; present findings at annual conferences of private collegiate education; design a study of exercise habits and mental health symptoms among elementary-school aged children to be administered in Duke Primary Care Practices; create a physical activity finder tool for pediatric providers to use when counseling kids on increasing activity.

Related Course

PSY 214: Exercise and Mental Health (Fall 2016)


Summer 2016 – Spring 2017

Students will be expected to register for a 4-6 week summer component and 2 semesters of Independent Study (Fall 2016 and Spring 2017). Summer 2016: Development of team charter, review of syllabus, review of research literature and overview of research methods and data analysis procedures. Fall 2016: Independent Study course, meetings once per week, also spend 7-10 hours per week working outside the meeting time. The course will primarily focus on manuscript development for the strength training and positive body image study, follow-up analysis of the positive body image data set to examine self-esteem, mood and eating disorder risk, and preparation for a spinoff study. Spring 2017: Independent Study course, meetings once per week, also spend 7-10 hours per week working outside the meeting time. This semester the course will focus on data collection and data analysis of the spinoff study, as well as refining and beta testing the activity finder application.

Team Outcomes to Date

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

Project website


Exercise and Mental Health

Faculty/Staff Team Members

Deborah Best, School of Medicine - Pediatrics*
Deborah Best, School of Medicine - Pediatrics
Sheri Branson, Duke Recreational & Physical Education
Leigh Garstecki, Duke Recreational & Physical Education
Kimberly McNally, Duke Recreational & Physical Education*
Karen Murphy, Trinity - Psychology and Neuroscience
Nancy Zucker, School of Medicine - Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences*

Graduate Team Members

Valerie Adams, Physical Therapy

Undergraduate Team Members

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

* denotes team leader