Studies Show Link Between Exercise and Academic Success

The summer sun and bright colors are a perfect invitation for you to spend time outdoors – to jog, walk, bike or swim. Or, if workout routines, machines and trainers are more inviting for you, schedule some time at your favorite gym. Time spent in physical activity is time well invested in your success as a higher education student. While it might seems like you have too much to do with work, family and school responsibilities to manage, exercise could be the key to handling all these responsibilities successfully.

Many studies have shown that there is a positive link between exercise and academic success. In fact, a study at North Carolina State University, led by Dr. Heather Sanderson, could help you draw the conclusion that exercise may be a good bet for helping you improve your GPA and reach your end goal. The study which looked at academic performance and physical activity of 21,000 undergrad students showed that one extra hour per week of physical exercise produced a 0.06 GPA improvement. It seems like a small improvement, but one hour is a small investment. “If a student who does not work out and then adds three hours per week, you are now looking at a 0.18 increase in GPA, which is a major impact,” said Sanderson. The study also showed that odds of graduation increased by 49 percent.

A lot of studies that look at benefits of exercise involve walking, says Dr. Scott McGinnis, a Harvard Medical School instructor and Brigham and Women’s Hospital neurologist. But if you don’t want to walk, do something else. “It’s likely that other forms of aerobic exercise that get your heart pumping might yield similar benefits,” says Dr. McGinnis.

So, what are these benefits and what is the link between exercise and academic success? Exercise has the ability to reduce insulin resistance, and reduce inflammation. It also stimulates the release of chemicals that affect brain cell health, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain and the survival of new brain cells. A study by University of British Columbia researchers also shows that exercise contributes to brain health . Exericse that raises your heart rate and makes you sweat increases the size of the hippocampus, the area of the brain that is involved in memory and learning. In addition to improving cognitive and memory functions, exercise also improves the students’ abilty to focus for longer time periods, says Jared T. Meacham of the University of New Orleans. The ability to learn and remember and focus for longer periods of time are invaluable for students. Time spent in classes and studying becomes more productive and yields better results.

The link between exercise and academic success is the result of behavior changes in individuals along with physical changes, says Dr. Niket Sonpal, assistant professor at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine. One change in behavior involves time management. Every student knows that handling work, family and classes at the same time requires time management. “Scheduling personal workout time forces college students to also schedule study time and this teaches them the importance of block timing, and prioritization of their studies,” says Dr. Sonpol.

Finding time for exercise on a regular schedule requires students to establish priorities and evaluate time use.
Modifying behavior to include exercise can lead to two important physical changes that demonstrate a positive link between exercise and academic success. Exercise has a positive effect on stress management and sleep quality, both of which impact student academic performance. Relieving stress is important for the brain’s memory functions. “Stress hormones inhibit memory production and your ability to sleep: two key things needed to score high on exams,” says Dr. Sonpol. “Better sleep means moving your studies from short term to long term memory during REM,” says Sonpol. “That way, on test day you remember that teeny tiny fact that gets you the scores you need.”

Exercise may seem like something you don’t have time to do when you are a student juggling many responsibilities, but time spent on exercise can make time spent all activities be more productive.