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


Fall 2018 – Spring 2019

  • 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 presentations.

Team Outcomes to Date

Exercise and Mental Health (poster by Kim McNally, Sheri Branson, Victoria Wickenheisser, Ahmad Amireh, Gabby Cooper, Mallory Hahn, Michael Shu, presented at EHDx, Duke University, April 9, 2019 and at Bass Connections Showcase, Duke University, April 17, 2019)

Exercise and Mental Health (talk by Ahmad Amireh and Mallory Hahn, EHDx, Duke University, April 9, 2019)

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

Brain lifting weights

Team Leaders

  • Kimberly McNally, Health, Wellness and Physical Education

/graduate Team Members

  • Victoria Wickenheisser, Medicine MD Third Year

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Ahmad Amireh, Biology (BS), Global Health (AB2)
  • Gabrielle Cooper, Evolutionary Anthropology (BS)
  • Mallory Hahn, Computer Science (AB)
  • Michael Shu, Biology (BS), Computer Science (AB2)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

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