Exercise and Mental Health (2018-2019)


Exercise is associated with mental and cognitive health benefits including reduced stress reactivity, depression, anxiety, dementia and ADHD symptoms, as well as improvements in body image, self-esteem and learning. 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.

Thus, research is needed to determine moderators (e.g., biological, psychosocial and exercise characteristics) of the relationship of exercise on positive mental health.

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

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, eating disorders, mood, stress reactivity and learning. The second 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 classes to identify practical ways to disseminate the project’s findings.

Accordingly, the team will survey students in Duke Physical Education classes to examine the effects of exercise on multiple mental health constructs and identify exercise and participant moderators. Team members will continue to disseminate the activity finder tool (developed by the 2017-2018 team) for pediatric providers to use when counseling kids on increasing activity, via workshops with pediatric residents.

Anticipated Outcomes

Research study findings presented at annual conference; manuscript published; aggregate report created for Duke Department of Health, Wellness & Physical Education regarding impact of its exercise classes on student mental health; physical activity finder tool refined and disseminated

Student Opportunities

Students will gain experience at all phases of research design, as well as in fostering collaborations between exercise scientists, exercise instructors, psychologists, neuroscientists and healthcare providers. Additionally, students will practice both writing and design for both basic research and practical applications.

Students will be directly involved in all phases of study development and implementation. A graduate student will serve as project manager for the study and coordinate study logistics such as participant recruitment and data collection scheduling.

The team will ideally be comprised of 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 computer science major or a student with the appropriate skill set could contribute to the activity finder application.

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

The team will include a year-round paid research assistant (graduate student; 10 hours per week) and 3-4 students involved for independent study course credit (undergraduate or graduate). The research assistant will act as project manager over the research study arm of the project. A medical student or resident could potentially manage the activity finder application arm of the project.

Team members will attend weekly meetings (90 minutes), with possible alternate weeks of small group meetings. During team meetings, all team members will meet to discuss the status of different project tasks and plan next step tasks. During small group meetings, team members will meet with a team leader and one or two other team members to work on specific tasks.

Students will be evaluated by the team leaders and peers on their literature review and presentation, unique contributions within the work roles/tasks, participation in team responsibilities (e.g., finding research articles, discussing research findings, providing feedback to teammates, attending meetings, timeliness with deadlines, etc.) and how they reflect the team charter in their work practices.


Fall 2018 – Spring 2019

The team will meet on Mondays or Fridays 1:30-2:30, depending on student availability.

  • Fall 2018: Develop team charter, participate in team-building activities, review syllabus, select research questions; design methods, write IRB application, attend pediatric resident focus group; write literature reviews and conduct presentations to teammates, conduct data collection, design team website, attend workshop on data management and statistical analysis; continue data collection, data entry and clean-up, team building activity
  • Spring 2019: Conduct data clean-up and data analysis, write results and interpretation; create conference-type poster presentation, write manuscript sections, attend Pediatric Resident Lunch and Learn workshops to disseminate activity finder, refine content for activity finder; attend conference, poster presentation


Independent study credit available for fall and spring semesters

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

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

Graduate Team Members

Victoria Wickenheisser, Medicine-MD

Undergraduate Team Members

Ahmad Amireh
Gabrielle Cooper
Mallory Hahn, Computer Science (AB)
Michael Shu

* denotes team leader


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