Open Access Open Badges Research article

An exploratory study of associations of physical activity with mental health and work engagement

Jantien van Berkel12, Karin I Proper12, Annelies van Dam1, Cécile RL Boot12*, Paulien M Bongers23 and Allard J van der Beek12

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Public and Occupational Health - EMGO Institute for Health and Care Research, VU University Medical Center, van der Boechorststraat 7, Amsterdam 1081 BT, The Netherlands

2 Body@Work, Research Center on Physical Activity, Work and Health, TNO-VU University Medical Centre, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

3 Department of Work and Employment, TNO Quality of Life, Hoofddorp, the Netherlands

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BMC Public Health 2013, 13:558  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-13-558

Published: 7 June 2013



Previous studies have found moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) to be associated with a decreased risk of mental disorders. Although the focus in the field of psychology has shifted towards human strengths and optimal functioning, studies examining associations between MVPA and mental health in general (MH) and between MVPA and well-being are scarce. An indicator of work-related well-being is work engagement (WE). The aim of this study was to explore the associations between MVPA and MH, and between MVPA and WE.


In this study, a total of 257 employees from two research institutes, self-reported their MVPA, MH and level of WE. In addition, a randomly chosen subgroup (n=100) wore an Actigraph accelerometer for a 1-week period to measure their MVPA objectively. Crude and adjusted associations between MVPA and both WE and MH were analyzed using linear regression analyses.


There was no statistically significant association between self-reported MVPA and mental health, resulting from both the crude (b=0.058, 95% CI -0.118 - 0.235) and adjusted analyses (b=0.026; 95% CI -0.158- 0.210), nor between objectively measured MVPA and mental health for both crude and adjusted analyses (b=-0.144; 95% CI -1.315- 1.027; b=-0.199; 95% CI 1.417- 1.018 respectively). There was also no significant association between self-reported MVPA and work engagement (crude: b=0.005; 95% CI -0.005-0.016, adjusted: b= 0.002; 95% CI -0.010- 0.013), nor between objectively measured MVPA and work engagement (crude: b= 0.012; 95% CI -0.084- 0.060, adjusted: b=0.007; 95% CI -0.083-0.069).


Although the beneficial effects of MVPA on the negative side of MH (i.e. mental disorders) have been established in previous studies, this study found no evidence for the beneficial effects of MVPA on positive side of MH (i.e. well-being). The possible difference in how the physical activity-mental health relationship works for negative and positive sides of MH should be considered in future studies.

Work engagement; Physical activity; Accelerometry