UHS Study Found No Impact of Exercise Encouragement on Mental Health

A University Health Services study on the impact of exercise encouragement on mental health found no difference between control and treatment groups, UHS Director Paul J. Barreira said in a talk on Wednesday.

The study came after results from a College-wide survey revealed a “dramatic correlation” between mental health problems and frequency of exercise, Barreira said.

A quarter of the roughly 3,000 students who responded to the survey recorded zero days of moderate exercise in the past week, defined as 20 minutes a day. Twenty-five percent of those students said they had significant depression, and 32.7 percent reported general anxiety disorder. Barreira said moderate exercise was correlated with “better overall health, better sleep, [and] greater satisfaction.”

Paul J. Barreira
UHS Director Paul J. Barreira said that a University Health Services study on the impact of exercise encouragement on mental health found no difference between control and treatment groups in a talk on Wednesday.

After collecting this data, administrators at UHS worked with the Athletic Department to design an experiment to test the effects of daily exercise on undergraduate mental health.


“Athletic Department got excited, College got excited, and UHS got excited,” Barreira said. “So, we came up with a pilot project.”

The study involved some students in Dunster and Kirkland Houses. Dunster residents were encouraged to exercise through fitness programs and literature, while Kirkland residents constituted the control group. After a semester of the project, a follow-up survey revealed no difference in mental health between the two groups, Barreira said.

Seeking to design a more effective experiment, Barreira has partnered with the Athletic Department as well as Economics professor David I. Laibson ’88, Biology professor Daniel E. Lieberman, and Business School professor Paul A. Gompers.

“This time we got even more ambitious,” Barreira said. The new study is targeted for non-varsity athletes in the incoming freshmen class and will notably add a mandatory exercise component to the previous experimental design.

“We had a hypothesis: Coercion in this case is good, and will lead to better results,” Barreira said. “So, the coercions have to do with: If you don’t meet your mark, we will donate to the organization that you hate. If you do meet your mark, you will get certification signed by the president that states you’ve reached a certain fitness and completed this program. That’s the basic design.”

Barreira’s comments came during his talk at the second annual Harvard Thinks Healthy event, organized by the Harvard College Health Advocacy Program. Sponsored by Harvard’s Department of Health Promotion and Education and the Wellness Center, Harvard Thinks Healthy 2015 aimed to showcase current research on issues of health conducted by Harvard faculty.