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ENGL 324

Examining the relationship between physical health and mental health for college students
at North Dakota State University
Jon Bell-Clement, Hae Ju Choi, Tianqi Dai, Damon Hage
Abstract
It is the consensus of the scientific community that physical health and mental health are
linked, and that being both mentally and physically healthy can help improve performance both
academically and professionally. Our research team created a survey to gauge mental health,
physical health, and GPA and correlate these variables in students at North Dakota State
University (NDSU), a research-based, 4-year institution. We found a positive correlation between
mental health and exercise frequency among the respondents, as well as a positive correlation
between exercise frequency and student GPA.
Introduction
According to recent research, prevalence of symptoms of mental health problems has
been increasing from 2010 to 2013, in which 8.2 % of young men and 17.5 % of young women
aged 1624 years reported mental health problems among Danish adolescents (Poulsen. 2016).
In addition, 20% of children and adolescents have symptoms of depression (Van Dijk et al,
2016). Left untreated, depression may progress from substance abuse to suicide, and it will also
increase the risk of isolation, absence from school, and academic underachievement (Van Dijk et
al, 2016).
Regular physical activity reduces the risk of depression and has positive benefits for
mental health, including reduced anxiety, enhanced mood, and self-esteem (Poulsen. 2016).
Physical activity can be any activity that causes sweating or heavy breathing and burns calories,
such as running, climbing stairs, walking, or playing team sports (Bhochhibhoya, 2014). This
type of activity that has the strongest benefit to fitness, as opposed to lighter activity such as
speed-walking. Physical activity becomes regular when it is organized into a routine, and it can
be incorporated into other daily activities as well, such as performing chores or using stairs rather
than elevators.
Despite the potential benefits, Americans on average do not meet the recommended
amount of exercise. This lack of exercise can start in childhood, leading to an increased risk of
future health problems (Booth, 2012). According to the Lovetoknow article, the reasons why
people do not engage in regular physical activity could be due to a busy schedule, limited budget,
and a lack of motivation. There are lots of studies on the relationship between physical activity
and depression, although most of them use cross-sectional designs (Van Dijk et al, 2016).
Therefore, longitudinal studies are needed.
Studies have been done on the relationship between physical activity habits and various
types of mental and physical health problems. One was given at the University of Minnesota in
2007, which had 10,000 respondents from 14 Minnesota college campuses. The study examined
areas of mental health, obesity, financial health, and sexual health, alcohol use, smoking, and
personal safety. The survey showed that almost 38.5% of all students surveyed fell within the
overweight or obese/extremely obese categories, 28.7% reported excessive computer/Internet
use, and 41.8% indicated that said activity affected their academic performance. The results
suggest that some significant causes to poor academic performance are problems that relate to
the students physical health.

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Despite only including Minnesota college students as research subjects, these results may
indicate a larger-scale problem. Dr. Ed Ehlinger, the director and chief health officer of the
university's Boynton Health Service, says Although the study is focused on students from 14
campuses in Minnesota, the health findings may reflect national health trends for college
students. Furthermore, according to the doctorate dissertation of Karen Rodenroth of Liberty
University, Research has been done on the relationship between mental and physical health,
suggesting that regular physical activity may help improve mental and academic performance by
improving cardiovascular strength, therefore increasing the amount of oxygen delivered to the
brain. Therefore, we propose that individuals diagnosed with clinical mental illnesses, if they
are able, could engage in regular physical activity to lessen any detriments caused by their
condition.
Methodology
To confirm the results of the University of Minnesota study, we decided to conduct a
survey on the relationship between physical activity and mental health. The survey was sent
digitally, as surveys in this format are inexpensive, easy to administer, have a fast turnaround
rate. We created the survey using the website Survey Monkey and distributed it through the
discussion board on NDSUs Blackboard website. The survey was sent to students in one of
NDSUs introductory statistics classes for the spring 2016 semester, receiving 40 responses
within three days (the statistics class has a total population of 194).
The survey first asked demographic questions such as gender and academic year to see if
females, males, freshmen, seniors, etc. are particularly influenced by the benefits of physical
activity. Second, students were asked if they suffered from any mental or physical health
problems, and if so, how often. These questions were evaluated using a Likert Scale with
responses ranging from Never, Less than once a month, Sometimes, More than once a
week, and Always This numerically transformed into a scale of 1-5 with 1 being Never and
5 being Always. The students were then asked how often they engaged in physical activity,
how long these active periods lasted (on similar 1-5 scales), and how they felt afterward. Finally,
the survey inquired each students grade-point average (GPA) to quantify academic performance.
The full list of questions can be found in Appendix A.
Results & Analysis
Of the students that responded, 18 were male and 22 were female (Figure 1). Most of
them were in science and engineering majors in addition to a few business majors, so not all
disciplines at the university were proportionally represented. Half of the respondents in the
sample were senior and graduate students, while 25% were juniors and 20% are sophomores
(Figure 2). Results from the questions related to the mental health indicate that students at NDSU
may be afflicted with one or more mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, and
the severity of the conditions vary among students. Using our Likert scale of 1 to 5, we found the
average total frequencies of difficulties related to depression and anxiety to be 2.02 and 2.15
respectively (Table 1). Difficulties related to physical health problems were comparatively less
frequent but still present (Table 2).
We used the statistical software Minitab 17 to analyze the data, and we constructed
scatter and bubble plots to illustrate correlations between quantitative variables. We plotted
relationships between frequency of reported mental and health difficulties, physical activity
frequency and duration, and GPA. First, we found a positive relationship between the frequency
of reported mental difficulty and the frequency of reported physical difficulty with the subjects
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(Figure 8).We also found that subjects who reported less frequent mental health difficulty
engaged in physical activity more often (Figure 9).
In terms of mental health and academic performance, we found that students who
reported less frequent mental health difficulty also had higher GPAs (Figure 10). There seems to
be a very weak positive relationship between physical activity frequency and frequency of
reported physical health problems, as those who reported slightly fewer problems may exercise
more frequently on average (Figure 11). Subjects who engaged in physical activity more often
tended to work out for longer periods of time on average (Figures 12a & 12b), and those who
engaged in physical activity more often also had higher average GPAs (Figures 13a & 13b).
Discussion
Earlier studies of the relationship between mental health and physical health have pointed
out that physical activity diminishes the risk of mental health problems (University of Minnesota
2007 and Poulsen. 2016), and the findings of our study appear to be in agreement with that
conclusion. We found a positive correlation between physical activity and mental health as well
as between physical and mental health and academic performance. The results found in this study
could represent the current mental and physical issues of the majority students in NDSU,
however additional studies would needed to be done to confirm this.
One limitation of this study is that physical activity was measured subjectively through
the use of questionnaires, as the subjects responses may not accurately represent their true
behavior. Another limitation was the small sample size, which could be prone to
overrepresentation of particular responses by mere chance, although our group attempted to
minimize residuals at every opportunity. A significant hindrance to this study was Survey
Monkeys limit on the number of questions that we could ask in the survey without paying
additional fees. Questions about mental health therefore had to be condensed and generalized,
and we could not inquire specifically what difficulties that any mental conditions may have
caused in the respondents.
Our results may provide direction for researchers who are interested in studying the
relationship between mental and physical health and improving peoples health in general. By
comparing Figure 9, Figure 10, and Figures 13a & b, we see that physical activity may improve
mental health, and that improved mental health can be reflected academically by a higher GPA.
With this in mind, the university itself could take some actions in order to minimize current
students mental and physical health issues. Some options could include promoting the benefits
of physical activity to mental health and academic performance with posters on campus and
through LISTSERV emails.
Future researchers could examine the effect of regular physical activity on specific
mental illnesses. Social anxiety, for example, may prevent patients from exercising in public and
thus close off a potential resource for coping with the condition. Other research could include
studying which types of physical activity are most beneficial to coping with stress, and
examining the neurological and physiological causes of exercise-induced relief of symptoms of
mental illnesses. Even further research could look at GPA and exercise according to discipline, as
different majors require different kinds of intelligences and thought processes that may be
differently affected by various types of exercise. In any case, through our survey we have come
one step closer to confirming that a sound mind is dependent on a sound body.

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References
1. American Heart Association, http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/GettingPhysically-Active_UCM_307097_Article.jsp?appName=MobileApp, accessed on April
13.2016.
2. Bhochhibhoya, A., Branscum, P., Taylor, E. L., & Hofford, C. (2014). EXPLORING THE
RELATIONSHIPS OF PHYSICAL ACTIVITY, EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE, AND
MENTAL HEALTH AMONG COLLEGE STUDENTS. American Journal Of Health
Studies, 29(2), 191-198.
3. Booth, F. W., Roberts, C. K., & Laye, M. J. (2012). Lack of exercise is a major cause of
chronic diseases. Comprehensive Physiology, 2(2), 11431211.
4. Mental health. Public Health Reports, 100(2), 195202.
5. Likert, Rensis (1932). "A Technique for the Measurement of Attitudes". Archives of
Psychology 140: 155. Retrieved April 20, 2016
6. LoveToKnow, http://exercise.lovetoknow.com/Reasons_People_Don't_Exercise, accessed
on April 21, 2016.
7. Poulsen, P. H., Biering, K., Andersen, J. H., & Hoegh Poulsen, P. (2016). The association
between leisure time physical activity in adolescence and poor mental health in early
adulthood: a prospective cohort study. BMC Public Health, 161-11.
8. Rodenroth, K. (2010). Relationship Between Physical Fitness and Academic
Performance. 1-174. Retrieved April 16, 2016.
9. Taylor, C. B., Sallis, J. F., & Needle, R. (1985). The relation of physical activity and
exercise to
10. University of Minnesota. "Report On Health And Habits Of College Students Released."
ScienceDaily, 16 November 2007.
11. Van Dijk, M. L., Savelberg, H. M., Verboon, P., Kirschner, P. A., & De Groot, R. M.
(2016). Decline in physical activity during adolescence is not associated with changes in
mental health. BMC Public Health, 161-9.

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Appendix A: Health Issue Survey Questions
Q1. What is your gender?
o
o

Male
Female

Q2. Whats your major?


Q3. Which academic year are you in?
o
o
o
o
o

Freshmen
Sophomore
Junior
Senior
Graduate

Q4. Do you suffer from any mental health problems? If so, how often?
(Never, Less than once a month, Sometimes, More than once a week, Always)
o
o
o
o
o

Depression
Anxiety
Thoughts of Suicide
Eating Disorders
Addiction

Q5. Do you suffer from any physical health problems? If so, how often?
(Never, Less than once a month, Sometimes, More than once a week, Always)
o
o
o
o
o

Chronic Pain
Injury/Violence
Overweight/Underweight
Immunizations
Nutrition

Q6. How often do you work out per week? (Options below)
o
o
o
o

Once
Two-three times
Four-five times
Six-seven times

Q7. When you work out, how much time do you usually spend? (Options below)
o
o
o
o

Less than 30 minutes


30-60 minutes
60-90 minutes
More than 90 minutes

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Q8. Do you feel good after working out? (Options below)


o
o
o

Yes
No
I dont know

Q9. If you answered yes to the question above, what are the factors that contributed to
your choice? (Options below, multiple answers allowed)
o
o
o
o
o
o

It makes you less stressed out


It energizes you
It boosts your confidence
It eases anxiety
It fights insomnia
Other

Q10. What is your GPA out of 4.0? (Options below)


o
o
o
o

Below 2.5
2.5-3.0
3.0-3.5
Above 3.5

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Appendix B: Responses for Questions.


The charts and graphs below provide the specific research questions asked as well as the
total number of respondents for each response for reference.
Figure 1. Responses for Q1

Figure 2. Responses for Q3


Table 1. Answers for Q4

Never

Less than once a


Month

Sometime
s

More than once a


week

Alway
s

Total

Depresssion

17
42.50%

9
22.50%

11
27.50%

2
5.00%

1
2.50%

40

Anxiety

15
37.50%

10
25.00%

10
25.00%

4
10.00%

1
2.50%

40

Thoughts about
suicide

28
70%

4
10.00%

7
17.50%

1
2.50%

0
0.00%

40

Eating Disorders

21
52.50

14
35.00%

1
2.50%

3
7.50%

1
2.50%

40

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Addiction

65.00%

20.00%

12.50%

2.50%

0.00%

40

Never

Less than once a


month

Sometime
s

More than once a


week

Everyda
y

Total

Chronic Pain

28
71.79%

8
20.51%

1
2.56%

2
5.13%

0
0.00%

39

Injury/Violence

33
82.50%

6
15.00%

1
2.50%

0
0.00%

0
0.00%

40

Overweight/
Underweight

29
74.36%

4
10.26%

1
2.56%

1
2.56%

4
10.26%

39

Immunization
problems

28
70.00%

7
17.50%

3
7.50%

2
5.00%

0
0.00%

40

Nutrition

26
65.00%

6
15.00%

7
17.50%

1
2.50%

0
0.00%

40

Table 2. Answers for Q5

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Figure 3. Answers for Q6

Figure 4. Answers for Q7

Figure 5. Answers for Q8


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Figure 6. Answers for Q9

Figure 7. Answers for Q10

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Appendix C : Scatterplots (Bubble plot), Correlations, and Regressions in Minitab


Figure 8. Frequency of reported mental health difficulty vs Frequency of reported physical health
problems.

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Figure 9. Frequency of reported mental health difficulty vs Physical activity frequency.

Figure 10. Frequency of reported mental health difficulty vs GPA.

Figure 11 Frequency of reported physical health problems vs Physical activity frequency.

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Figure 12a. Physical activity frequency vs Physical activity duration.

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Figure 12b. Physical activity frequency vs Physical activity duration (Bubble plot)

Figure 13a. Physical activity frequency (y-axis) vs GPA (x-axis)

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Figure 13b. Physical activity frequency vs GPA (Bubble plot)

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