Poor Health Linked to PTSD and Depression in College Students

Because physical health and exercise has been linked to mental health, researchers at the VA Boston Healthcare System, Boston, Massachusetts, Boston University School of Medicine and Minneapolis VA Medical Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, collaborated on a study to examine this relationship closer. “Numerous studies have shown that exercise is associated with improved psychological well-being, health, and life satisfaction,” said the team. They enrolled 200 college students and assessed them for symptoms of trauma and depression using the Traumatic Life Events Questionnaire and the Beck Depression Inventory II. They were asked to recall their most traumatic life experience and describe the level of symptoms that they had experienced over the previous four weeks. Symptoms were categorized in clusters, including avoidance and emotional numbing, re-experiencing through memories or thoughts, and hyper-arousal or being easily startled. They also gauged the functional health of each participant, and their level of physical activity using the Health Risk Appraisal.

Their examination revealed a strong connection between physical activity and psychological symptoms. “PTSD symptoms and depressive symptoms were both associated with poorer physical and functional health at the bivariate level and uniquely when examined together as predictors,” said the researchers. “The pattern of results was also consistent with the expectation that exercise would serve as a pathway through which these mental health difficulties would be associated with poorer health.” The team emphasized the importance of physical activity to all levels of health, and yet are unclear as to whether the participants’ physical activity decreased as a result of the psychological symptoms, or if the increased symptoms were due in part to sedentary lifestyles. The researchers also discovered symptoms of hyper-arousal, avoidance and numbing were most closely linked to negative health and lack of exercise. They concluded by adding, “Given the high comorbidity of PTSD and depressive symptoms, this research suggests that both should be considered when examining health symptoms.”

Rutter, L. A., Weatherill, R. P., Krill, S. C., Orazem, R., & Taft, C. T. (2011, March 28). Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms, Depressive Symptoms, Exercise, and Health in College Students. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0021996

© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • steph


    August 17th, 2011 at 4:11 AM

    hey this is so true because I know on those days when I plan for a workout but something comes up and I miss it it really makes the rest of the day bad for me. I know that it is a mental thing because I am much more motivated and energetic when I get that exercise in for the day.

  • Leo


    August 17th, 2011 at 11:34 AM

    So is physical activity solely for the purpose of physical health really necessary?Say maintain a good diet and do not have any activities that are detrimental to my health,then would I still require to exercise?I mean if I’m like walking around just fine and not using the car to go to the next street,is that not enough?

  • Max


    August 17th, 2011 at 1:45 PM

    The bad thing is that too few people these days make any kind of physical activity a priority in their lives. They think that they can get away without it, but I think that we all know that for most of us it could make such a positive difference if only we would get up and move some. But I know that college kids are always going to find other things to do that they think will be way better and cooler, so how to spread the message that this is something that is going to benefit them in ways that maybe they have not even considered?



    August 17th, 2011 at 7:02 PM

    I remember how I fell ill at the beginning of my first year at college-I missed home and bring with parents. I fell ill. My grades suffered then. Although I did well in the later years and more than made up for it, it gave me a good lesson on why your health is so important. Not just to feel fine or good but for a lot of other things that could go wrong if your health deteriorates.

  • Katy


    August 18th, 2011 at 3:39 AM

    When my health is not at its best I feel so different.Concentration goes down and irritability increases.It affects academics to a great deal..So yes,this is true from my personal experience and any remedial measures in this regard are always a good thing.

  • amos


    August 18th, 2011 at 4:12 AM

    does anyone have any hard stats about how many college kids fall ill with depression every fall?

  • D.P


    August 18th, 2011 at 7:24 PM

    It’s not hard to imagine sorone with a recurrent earth issue like chronic illness or something being depressed about it. But are we talking of such complications or smaller ones here?

  • Ray G.

    Ray G.

    August 21st, 2011 at 6:56 PM

    But when I am depressed the last thing I feel motivated to do is get up out of my comfy chair and go exercise. I only exercise when I’m already feeling good, so how can I overcome that reluctance? Once I start, if I force myself to do it, I always feel better later. See, I know this logically.

  • Joel Dalgleish

    Joel Dalgleish

    August 22nd, 2011 at 6:52 PM

    Depression makes everything in my life suck, including my physical health. When it’s at its worst, it’s like my immune system decides to take a vacation. I’ll pick up every germ, bug and virus within ten miles of me. Just what I need when I’m already messed up.

    I can’t not go to classes or miss exams however sick I feel, and then I don’t do well in them because I can’t focus on the papers properly. In college, you’ve got too much going on all at once academically to have time to deal with your depression too.

  • Jonathan Ruddy

    Jonathan Ruddy

    August 22nd, 2011 at 7:50 PM

    @Joel-I’ve seen a triangle on campus noticeboards with Social Life, Sleep, and Studies written on it. The caption of the picture is “Pick two.” Ha ha.

    But in reality, it’s sleep, health, happiness, studies, social life, and money you’re dealing with simultaneously. No wonder all that pressure triggers depression.

  • C. Glenns

    C. Glenns

    August 22nd, 2011 at 8:22 PM

    So poor health choices are causing PTSD? Wow. I thought that was reserved for victims of violent crime or abuse, the military vets, and those caught up in a disaster like a hurricane or a terrorist attack.

    Depression makes sense because of the stress. I don’t understand how you can get PTSD from attending college.

  • Christopher T. Ventura

    Christopher T. Ventura

    August 22nd, 2011 at 8:33 PM

    @C. Glenns–PTSD is caused by many things and not all fall within the parameters of your list. I’ve heard of people getting it after a beloved pet dies for example. I think most of them must have already been on the brink of some kind of mental breakdown to be so susceptible to PTSD over a pet bereavement.

    And I feel the same applies to college: circumstances that would trigger depression symptoms in one student may trigger PTSD symptoms in another if they were already more mentally or emotionally fragile than the first student.

  • Situs J.

    Situs J.

    March 4th, 2015 at 3:58 AM

    i think i left my mind in here…i always searching for this kind of article..this was so good… nothing to complain… that’s all!

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