College student identity, mental health and fitness behaviors: does fitness moderate the relationship between identity and mental health among college students?
Avery-Peck, Gabrielle Sophia
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Although developing a personal identity is a lifelong process, it has long been considered the critical developmental task faced by adolescents transitioning to adulthood. Previous studies have researched the factors contributing to identity formation and the correlates of identity; researchers have found that individuals whose identities are based in intensive exploration of values, beliefs and goals, followed by a strong commitment to said values, beliefs and goals, are more likely to have positive mental health and psychological well-being. The environment in which emerging adults face the developmental task of identity is often college or university. College students are generally separating from their families for the first time, and are faced with many decisions that will influence the development identity. Although college offers an opportunity for exploration, there are students that may not actively engage in the exploration process, potentially due to a lack of interest or ability. College student-athletes are a subset of college students that may be at a disadvantage when it comes to the exploration process. Due to their stringent schedules and focused commitment to one specific activity, college student-athletes may be developing identities that are limited in their scope while their non-athlete peers have the opportunity to explore their environments in greater depth and breadth. If this is the case, student-athletes may be at higher risk of poor mental health or psychological well-being. A factor that has not been considered in the literature is the impact that fitness behaviors have on the relationship between identity and mental health. The relationship between exercise and positive mental health has been widely researched and supported, and student-athletes regularly exercise as a part of their training. As such, the research would indicate that student-athletes are at risk of negative mental health correlates as a result of identities based on premature commitments or a lack of exploration, but would also likely benefit from the positive mental health correlates that exercising regularly would indicate. This exploratory study aimed to provide clarity to these conflicting correlates of identity and mental health, and answer three research questions about the relationship between college student identity, mental health and fitness behaviors. Data was collected from a sample of 347 college students who completed a web-based survey during the spring semester of 2016. The research questions for this study focused on the relationship between identity and mental health, and whether or not fitness behaviors moderate that relationship. Additionally, this study sought to identify any differences between student-athletes and non-student-athletes in terms of their patterns of identity and mental health. Finally, the study explored how identification with the athletic role among student-athletes impacts identity and mental health. There was no evidence found to support fitness as a moderator of identity and mental health. There were, however, trends in the results indicating that anxiety and depression do decrease for certain identity groups (i.e. Achievement, Carefree Diffusion, Undifferentiated) when individuals in that group engage in regular exercise. These findings support the need for future research on college student identity, as well as college student-athletes as a unique subset of the larger population of college students. The current research on college student identity and on student-athletes is limited in its scope, both in terms of how identity influences mental health and other factors that might contribute. This study contributes to the current literature by suggesting that fitness behaviors may moderate the relationship between identity and mental health. This would have implications for how the correlates of identity are understood and also imply that college student-athletes may be at higher risk for negative mental health consequences following their retirement from sport. For college students and college student-athletes that may be less susceptible to interventions targeting their exploration of, and commitment to, identity, interventions focusing on exercise may decrease the negative mental health correlates that have been shown to relate to identity statuses low in exploration and commitment. In summary, although there was no statistically significant evidence found to support the research questions examining identity, mental health and fitness behaviors, there were visible trends in the data. This may indicate that with a larger sample statistically significant results might be achieved. Future research that includes larger samples of college students from public and private universities and evaluates students from various areas of the United States may provide greater insight into how these variables are related. Additionally, future research that expands on the variables mental health and fitness behaviors may lead to greater understanding of how fitness may moderate the relationship between identity and mental health.