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


Summer 2017 – Spring 2018

  • 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

Team Outcomes to Date

Exercise and Mental Health (talk by Madison Heath and Madeline Wilkerson), EHDx, April 19, 2018

Impact of Type of Exercise on Mental Wellness (poster by Madison Heath and Madeline Wilkerson), presented at Bass Connections Showcase, April 18, 2018, and EHDx, April 19, 2018

Project team website

See related teams, Exercise and Mental Health (2018-2019) and Exercise and Mental Health (2016-2017).

Bass Connections team member

/faculty/staff Team Members

  • Deborah Best, School of Medicine-Pediatrics
  • Leigh Garstecki, Duke Recreational & Physical Education
  • Kimberly McNally, Health, Wellness and Physical Education*
  • Nancy Zucker, School of Medicine-Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences*

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Vidal Arditi, Psychology (AB)
  • Ana-Clara Caldwell, Psychology (BS), Spanish (AB2)
  • Madison Heath, Psychology (BS)
  • Madeline Wilkerson, Psychology (BS)