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Exercise (Physical Activity) Linked to Lower Depression Risk in College Students (2024 Study)

In a comprehensive study conducted within Shanghai’s Songjiang University Town, researchers embarked on an ambitious project to unravel the complexities of depressive symptoms among college students and to dissect the interplay between these symptoms and physical activity levels.

Their meticulous approach utilized a blend of diagnostic tools and questionnaires to categorize depressive symptoms and measure physical activity, culminating in insights that underscore the protective role of exercise against depression.

This study illuminates the multifaceted nature of depressive symptoms among young adults in academic settings and champions physical activity as a viable buffer against these mental health challenges.


  1. Diverse Categories of Depressive Symptoms: The study identified four distinct groups among college students based on their depressive symptoms, ranging from severe with suicidal ideation to normal, underscoring the heterogeneity of depression.
  2. Protective Role of Physical Activity: Regular physical activity emerged as a significant protective factor, with higher levels of exercise linked to lower rates of depressive symptoms, including suicidal thoughts and cognitive impairments.
  3. Effect of Socio-Demographic Factors: Factors such as strained family relationships, academic stress, and social activity levels were found to influence the risk of experiencing depressive symptoms, highlighting the interplay between environmental factors and mental health.
  4. Methodological Rigor: The use of latent profile analysis, along with a comprehensive set of questionnaires, provided a nuanced understanding of depressive symptoms and their relationship with physical activity, offering a model for future research in the field.

Source: Journal of Affective Disorders (2024)

Findings from Study of Depressive Symptoms vs. Physical Activity in College Students (2024)

A study conducted at Shanghai’s Songjiang University Town offered comprehensive insights into how depressive symptoms manifest among college students and the protective role of physical activity against these symptoms.

1. Classification of Depressive Symptoms

The study’s application of latent profile analysis led to the identification of four distinct groups based on depressive symptoms, providing a nuanced understanding of the spectrum of depression in the college student population:

  • Group 1 (Severe Depressive Symptoms with Suicidal Ideation): This group represented 11.07% of the participants and included students experiencing the most severe form of depressive symptoms. Unique to this category was the presence of suicidal ideation alongside other severe symptoms, indicating a critical need for intervention.
  • Group 2 (Cognitive Symptoms without Suicidal Ideation): Comprising 14.35% of the sample, these students exhibited significant cognitive symptoms such as difficulties with concentration and decision-making but did not report suicidal thoughts. This group’s symptoms suggest a substantial impact on academic performance and daily functioning.
  • Group 3 (Mild Depressive Symptoms): The largest subgroup, with 23.61% of participants, displayed mild depressive symptoms. These symptoms were less severe and less disruptive but still noteworthy for their potential to escalate if unaddressed.
  • Group 4 (No Depressive Symptoms): Representing the majority, 50.97% of students fell into this category, showing no significant signs of depressive symptoms and suggesting a state of relatively good mental health.

2. Protective Effects of Physical Activity (Exercise)

A pivotal finding of the study was the clear protective effect of physical activity against depressive symptoms.

  • Higher Activity Levels in Non-Depressed Group: Students in Group 4, who showed no depressive symptoms, reported significantly higher levels of physical activity compared to their peers in other groups. This suggests a correlation between regular physical activity and lower rates of depressive symptoms.
  • Impact on Cognitive Symptoms & Suicidal Ideation: The analysis revealed that engaging in physical activity more than three times per week for 30–59 minutes was associated with a significantly lower detection rate of cognitive symptoms. Furthermore, exercising at a similar frequency also corresponded with reduced rates of suicidal thoughts. These findings highlight the importance of regular, moderate exercise in mitigating some of the most concerning aspects of depression among college students.
  • Exercise Frequency as a Key Factor: The study underscored the frequency of physical activity as a crucial determinant in the protective effects against depressive symptoms. Regular engagement in exercise was more strongly associated with lower rates of depressive symptoms than the intensity or duration of the physical activity alone.

These findings underscore the complex interplay between physical activity and mental health, suggesting that regular exercise can serve as a non-pharmacological intervention to reduce or prevent depressive symptoms among college students.

(Related: Exercise Treats Depression as Effectively as Antidepressants?)

Investigating Depressive Symptoms & Physical Activity in College Students (2024 Study)

Lili Li et al. examined the classification of depressive symptoms among college students and the relationship between these symptoms and physical activity.

It sought to identify specific depressive symptom profiles within the college student population and to determine how varying levels of physical activity could influence these symptoms.


  • The study utilized a convenience sampling method to recruit participants from Shanghai’s Songjiang University Town.
  • It employed a combination of three main instruments: the General Information Questionnaire, the Patient Health Questionnaire-9 (PHQ-9) for screening depressive symptoms, and the Physical Activity Scale-3 (PARS-3) to assess physical activity levels.
  • A total of 3,541 students participated, with their depressive symptoms classified into four distinct groups through latent profile analysis.
  • This approach allowed for a nuanced examination of the depressive symptomatology spectrum among the students.


The findings revealed four categories of depressive symptoms among the participants:

  1. Group 1: Students with the most severe depressive symptoms, including suicidal ideation and cognitive symptoms (11.07%).
  2. Group 2: Students manifesting cognitive symptoms without suicidal ideation (14.35%).
  3. Group 3: Students with mild depressive symptoms (23.61%).
  4. Group 4: Students without depressive symptoms (50.97%).

Results highlighted the significant protective role of physical activity against depressive symptoms.

The study found that:

  • The level of physical activity was significantly higher in the normal group (Group 4) compared to the other groups.
  • Regular exercise, particularly more than three times a week for 30–59 minutes, was associated with a notably lower detection rate of cognitive symptoms and suicidal thoughts.


  • Sampling: The use of convenience sampling might limit the generalizability of the findings to the broader college student population.
  • Cross-Sectional Design: The cross-sectional nature of the study restricts the ability to infer causality between physical activity and depressive symptoms.
  • Self-Reports: Reliance on self-reported data for depressive symptoms and physical activity levels could introduce response bias, affecting the accuracy of the findings.

Potential Applications & Recommendations: Depression & Exercise in College Students (2024)

The nuanced findings from the study on depressive symptoms and physical activity among college students in Shanghai provide a robust foundation for several practical applications and recommendations.

These can be instrumental in designing more effective mental health interventions and policies tailored to the unique needs of the college student population.


  • Targeted Mental Health Programs: Universities and colleges can use the classification of depressive symptoms to develop targeted mental health programs that address the specific needs of each group. For example, interventions for Group 1 could include crisis support and counseling focused on suicidal ideation, while cognitive-behavioral strategies could be beneficial for Group 2, focusing on cognitive symptoms.
  • Physical Activity in Depression Treatment: The protective role of physical activity suggests that colleges should incorporate regular, structured exercise programs into their mental health and wellness initiatives. These could include fitness classes, sports clubs, and outdoor activities designed to encourage regular participation.
  • Early Screening & Intervention: Early identification of students showing signs of depressive symptoms can enable timely intervention. Implementing regular screening using tools like the PHQ-9 as part of routine health assessments can help in early detection and management of depressive symptoms.


  • Promote Regular Physical Activity: Institutions should actively promote physical activity as a critical component of students’ daily routines. This could be facilitated through awareness campaigns, providing accessible recreational facilities, and integrating physical education courses with an emphasis on mental health benefits.
  • Develop Supportive Policies: Educational institutions could develop policies that create a supportive environment for students with depressive symptoms. This includes accommodating academic adjustments, providing access to mental health resources, and fostering a campus culture that prioritizes mental well-being.
  • Engage in Longitudinal Research: Further research should be encouraged to explore the long-term effects of physical activity on depressive symptoms among college students. Longitudinal studies could provide deeper insights into the causality between exercise and mental health, facilitating the development of more effective intervention strategies.

How Exercise May Protect Against Depression (Mechanisms)

The relationship between physical activity and depression is complex and multifaceted, with several biological, psychological, and social mechanisms playing a role in how exercise can protect against and alleviate symptoms of depression.

Biological Mechanisms

  1. Neurotransmitter Regulation: Exercise has been shown to influence the balance of certain neurotransmitters in the brain, including serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. These chemicals play critical roles in regulating mood, motivation, and pleasure. Regular physical activity can increase the availability of these neurotransmitters, helping to alleviate symptoms of depression.
  2. Neuroplasticity Enhancement: Physical activity promotes neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to form new neural connections and adapt in response to learning and experience. Exercise stimulates the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that supports the growth and survival of neurons, enhances cognition, and has been linked to improved mood.
  3. Inflammatory Response Reduction: Chronic inflammation has been associated with depression. Exercise can exert anti-inflammatory effects by releasing anti-inflammatory cytokines and reducing the levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines. This can help mitigate the inflammatory processes that are thought to be involved in the development of depression.
  4. Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis Modulation: The HPA axis regulates the body’s response to stress. Dysregulation of the HPA axis has been implicated in depression. Regular exercise can normalize HPA axis function, reducing cortisol levels (a stress hormone) and helping to alleviate stress and anxiety, which are often associated with depression.

Psychological Mechanisms

  1. Enhanced Self-Efficacy: Engaging in physical activity can improve one’s sense of personal control and self-efficacy. Achieving fitness goals or simply engaging in regular exercise routines can boost self-esteem and confidence, which are often diminished in individuals with depression.
  2. Distraction and Cognitive Disengagement: Exercise can serve as a distraction, allowing individuals to take a break from negative thoughts or stressors that contribute to depression. This mental break can help reduce the cycle of negative thoughts that are characteristic of depressive disorders.
  3. Mood Improvement Through Endorphin Release: Physical activity stimulates the release of endorphins, often referred to as the body’s natural painkillers. These endogenous opioids can produce feelings of euphoria and general well-being, colloquially known as the “runner’s high,” which can contribute to mood improvement.

Social Mechanisms

  1. Increased Social Interaction: Group exercise or team sports can provide valuable opportunities for social interaction and support, which are important for mental health. Social connections can help reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation, which are risk factors for depression.
  2. Structured Routine: Regular physical activity can help individuals establish a structured daily routine, which is often lacking in those with depression. The predictability and routine associated with scheduled exercise can provide a sense of stability and purpose.

Takeaway: Depressive Symptoms vs. Exercise in College Students

The study conducted in Shanghai’s Songjiang University Town illuminates the complex landscape of depressive symptoms among college students and the significant protective role of physical activity.

By categorizing depressive symptoms into distinct groups, the research offers a granular understanding that can guide tailored mental health interventions.

The findings underscore the importance of integrating physical activity into mental health strategies, emphasizing regular exercise as a preventative measure against depressive symptoms.

This study not only contributes valuable insights to the academic discourse on mental health among young adults but also provides actionable recommendations for institutions to support their students’ mental well-being.

Encouraging regular physical activity and early intervention based on symptom classification can pave the way for healthier, more resilient student populations.

Further longitudinal research will be crucial in validating these findings and refining intervention strategies for maximum impact.


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