Exercise and Mental Health (2017-2018)


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, experiencing a driven need to exercise beyond mental or physical wellness.

Research is needed to determine moderators (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. For example, research suggests that gender and motivations for exercise moderate the effect of exercise on body image. 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 who would most benefit and design specialized programs for vulnerable individuals.

Project Description

The primary goal of this Bass Connections project is to examine the relationship between exercise and various mental health issues that impact children, adolescents and young adults, including body image, mood, stress reactivity, cognitive function and learning. The secondary goal is to study potential moderators and types of exercise programs that may enhance the impact of exercise on positive mental health. The tertiary goal is to intersect with the healthcare system and college exercise programs to identify practical ways to disseminate the team’s findings.

The team will conduct a follow-up to the 2016-2017 project team’s study to examine the impact of exercise on stress reactivity with a broader aim of investigating how improvements in these areas may foster student resilience. Team members will compare a strength training group, an aerobic training group and a control group to determine whether exercise dampens stress reactivity and whether the type of exercise moderates the effect. Outcomes measures for stress reactivity may include biological tests (e.g., blood pressure, cortisol) and psychosocial instruments.

Additionally, this team will beta test the Activity Finder tool developed by the 2016-2017 team. This tool will be disseminated via workshops with pediatric residents in the Community rotation.

Related Course

PE207/PSY214 Exercise and Mental Health (Fall)

Anticipated Outcomes

Research intervention to measure and compare the effects of different types of exercise on stress reactivity in adolescents; presentation of findings at annual conference; published manuscript; dissemination and refinement of physical activity finder tool for pediatric providers to use when counseling children on increasing activity

Student Opportunities

Students will gain experience in all phases of research design as well as in fostering collaborations among exercise scientists, psychologists, neuroscientists and healthcare providers. Additionally, students will practice writing and design for basic research and practical applications. Team members will be encouraged, but not required, to register for PE 207/PSY 214 Exercise and Mental Health.

The team will include a year-round paid graduate research assistant (10 hours per week) and 3-4 students involved in a summer internship and independent study (undergraduate or graduate students).

The graduate research assistant will act as project manager for the research study arm of the project. A medical student or medical resident (who would get credit through his/her own departmental mechanisms) could join as a team contributor and manage the activity finder application arm of the project.

We seek pre-health undergraduates (pre-med, pre-physical therapy, pre-clinical psychology, etc.) and health-related graduate students (clinical psychology, medicine, health policy, public health, etc.). Additionally, a student with skills in computer science could contribute to the activity finder application arm.

All team members should have a keen interest in the relationship between lifestyle behaviors and health and have experience with or course work in research methods. Some members should have experience with exercise program design, computer science applications or data analysis methods.

We will engage with Duke Recreation and Physical Education to provide exercise facilities and recruit certified personal trainers to staff our exercise study. We will also engage with Duke Pediatric Residency to conduct focus groups with pediatricians in order to beta test and refine our Activity Finder application. Finally, we will engage with multiple providers and learners at the Duke Center for Eating Disorder Research. We will routinely share our findings with this lab and seek their feedback on our research design and interpretation questions.

Team members will attend weekly meetings (approximately 90 minutes). We may alternate weeks of team meetings and small group meetings. During small group meetings, team members will meet with a team leader and one or two other team members to work on specific tasks. During team meetings, all members will discuss the status of project tasks and plan next steps. Team members will also be expected to spend 7-10 hours per week working on specific tasks individually or arranging time with other team members or team leaders. We will also schedule periodic workshops and team building activities, preferably during team meeting times.

Student team members will learn how to understand the biological and psychosocial mechanisms underlying the effects of exercise on mental health; recognize biological, psychosocial and exercise characteristics that moderate the effect of exercise on mental health; describe study design issues that should be considered when implementing exercise research; understand the IRB process and specific considerations for exercise research and research on children and adolescents; gain experience in research methods such as recruitment, data collection and data analysis; recognize best practice exercise prescriptions for specific mental health constructs in college-aged students; and disseminate research findings to healthcare providers through development of educational materials and a physical activity finder tool.

Students will be evaluated by both the team leaders and peers on their unique contributions within the tasks, their participation in team responsibilities and on how they reflect the team charter in their work practices. We will develop a grading matrix that indicates point values for each of these areas. Based on performance in these areas, students will be assigned a letter grade for both the Fall and Spring Independent Study.


Summer 2017 – Spring 2018

Team meetings will take place on Friday afternoons.

  • Summer 2017: Develop team charter; run team building activities; review syllabus; perform data clean up and possibly some data analysis from Spring 2017 data collection; beta test and refine Activity Finder application; submit manuscript for publication from 2016-2017 team
  • Fall 2017: Continue data analysis and manuscript preparation for the stress reactivity research questions; conduct follow-up analysis of cumulative data sets to examine self-esteem, mood and eating disorder risk; plan follow-up study to increase sample size of current data set (if needed) or focus on a new mental health/cognitive function area; attend Pediatric Resident Lunch and Learn workshops to disseminate Activity Finder; refine content for web-based physical activity finder tool
  • Spring 2018: Run follow-up study (recruitment, data collection, data clean-up); refine activity finder tool; prepare poster and presentation


Independent study credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding

See earlier related team, Exercise and Mental Health (2016-2017).

Faculty/Staff Team Members

Deborah Best, School of Medicine - Pediatrics
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*

Undergraduate Team Members

Rosa Yang

* denotes team leader