Active College Students Healthier, Happier

Exercise is key to better moods and less stress for students in college

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D Beth Bolt, RPh

Physical activity is an important part of a healthy lifestyle for everyone. It is especially important for college students and young adults who are under stress.

A recent study looked at college students' exercise habits, the amount of time they spent socializing, their moods, and their stress levels.

The researchers found that students who vigorously exercised for at least 20 minutes a day, three times per week reported better moods and lower stress. Additionally, they claimed that some of the mental benefits of exercise came about as the result of socializing.

The authors of the study said that the research could be used to improve mental health programs for college-aged students by emphasizing the importance of physical activity.

"If you are in college, exercise at least three times per week."

Nicole VanKim, MPH, and Toben Nelson, ScD, both with the Divison of Epidemiology and Community Health in the School of Public Health, University of Minneapolis, conducted the study in order to see the relationship between exercise, stress, mental health, and socializing in students at a four-year college.

Previous research has shown that exercise and physical activity decrease as adolescents become young adults. Consistent physical activity is an important way to reduce the risk of disease and death.

Additionally, transitioning into college can be a stress-inducing time for young adults. The National Comorbidity Survey found that 5.8 percent of young people age 15 to 24 are clinically depressed. According to the authors of the study, the ability to deal with stress is crucial for students to maintain their physical and mental health.

Most of the studies regarding college students, physical activity, and mental health have not shown how factors like socializing could influence a student's stress level.

In order to examine the effect of physical activity and socializing on students' mental health, the researchers used data from the Harvard School of Public Health Study of College Health Behaviors. Ninety-four schools participated in the study.

Students were emailed a survey regarding their health behaviors. About 28 percent, or 14,804 students, completed the survey.

The survey included questions about the frequency of vigorous physical activity for at least 20 minutes at a time. It also asked about the student's general mood, stress level, and amount of time spent socializing.

The researchers found that the students who met or exceeded recommendations for physical activity, by exercising three times per week for at least 20 minutes a day, were less likely to report lower moods and stress. They also spent more time socializing.

Students who reported that they had fewer than five close friends and spent fewer than two hours per day socializing had a higher risk of having lower moods and more stress.

Additionally, they found that students who were more social and exercised three or more times per week reported somewhat better moods and less stress than students who exercised with similar frequency but were less social. The researchers concluded that part of the benefit that frequent physical activity has on mood and stress relies on social interactions.

According to the researchers, the findings could be used to suggest that mental health programs for college students should promote physical activity. Additionally, some of the benefits of exercise are the result of socializing.

"Engaging in physical activity and socializing were both linked to better mental health and lower stress among college students," said Nicole VanKim, one of the authors, in an email. "Mental health and stress are important health issues for college students, especially with regard to academic success. Our findings suggest that physical activity, socializing, and mental health are important areas to incorporate into health services for college students."

The article was published in the American Journal of Health Promotion in September.

The authors did not disclose any funding sources or conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
September 13, 2013
Last Updated:
September 16, 2013