A Longitudinal Investigation of the Mental Health Benefits of Physical Activity Among Graduate Students

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Virginia Tech


Recent evidence showing graduate students to be at an elevated risk of developing mental health problems has attracted the attention of both researchers and non-researchers (Evans, Bira, Gastelum, Weiss, and Vanderford, 2018; Flatherty, 2018). This increased risk could be attributed to the stressors graduate students routinely experience. However, few studies have examined the negative effects of work stressors among graduate students and ways to protect graduate students from the negative impact of stressors. This research explored the association between work stressors and the mental health of graduate students, while considering the potential protective role of physical activity. Also studied was the potential predictors of physical activity, such as social support for physical activity. Graduate students completed three surveys over a semester. Multilevel structural equation modeling was used to analyze within- and between-person variation. Increased levels of work stressors were associated with increased levels of mental health problems. Physical activity was not associated with improved mental health at both levels of analysis. However, higher levels of physical activity protected graduate students from the negative effects of role conflict and role ambiguity, but not work overload. Social support for physical activity and a mindset that stress is enhancing were both associated with increased physical activity. This is one of the first studies to not only consider the negative effects of work stressors on graduate students' mental health, but also the protective benefits of physical activity.



work stressors, physical activity, mental health