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 an unhealthy drive to exercise beyond mental or physical wellness. Thus, research is needed to determine moderators (e.g., biological, psychosocial and exercise characteristics) of the relationship between exercise and positive mental health.

This project team conducted a survey to examine the cross-sectional relationships between physical activity level and mental health outcomes. Team members also conducted an experimental study to examine the effect of physical activity and fitness on stress reactivity.

Findings from the studies were presented to Duke Recreation and physical education staff/instructors to inform how their classes and programs promote mental wellness among Duke students. The team plans to continue partnering with Duke Recreation to build the mental wellness message into future programs and classes. The team is also seeking future partnerships with Student Wellness and cultural groups to consider how to make physical activity programming more culturally inclusive and equitable.

Finally, the team worked with the Center for Mobile Development to build an app called Fitness Finder, a filterable database of physical activity opportunities in the Durham area. They are currently beta testing the app and hope to disseminate among pediatricians and public health providers in Fall 2019.


Fall 2018 – Spring 2019

Team Outputs

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)

This project team was originally part of the Education & Human Development theme of Bass Connections, which ended in 2022. 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 Fourth Year

/undergraduate Team Members

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

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

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