Whether children, teenagers, or adults – studies have consistently demonstrated that physically active people remain healthier and are able to perform better on tests of cerebral or intellectual ability. Some studies even indicate that the results are sharp and immediate – even a quick 5-minute walk can yield immediate results.
Most studies show that the more exercise one gets, the higher one’s mental faculties and cerebral performance. Yet, the picture is somewhat more complicated when it comes to college students who are also serious athletes. When these high-level athletes have to stay in shape, attend practices, travel to meets or games away from home, and still fulfill all the requirements of other college students, things can get tricky, and the measure of academic performance is no longer just a grade on a single exam.
While some college athletes experience difficulty balancing the responsibilities of their sport with the responsibilities of their academics, many student athletes actually find that the high degree of organization required to accomplish both leads them to be highly successful in both areas.
Scientific Correlation Between Physical Exercise and Achievement
In general, it has been scientifically demonstrated time and again that physical exercise is tightly correlated with mental acuity. A 2010 article in the Washington Post cited John J. Ratey, a Harvard University psychiatrist who synthesized volumes of research for his intriguing 2008 book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. In his book, Ratey describes taking MRI scans of the brains of sedentary people who have suddenly improved their fitness – and increased volume in the hippocampus and frontal and temporal lobes, the regions of the brain associated with cognitive functioning. The hippocampus in particular is associated with memory and learning. (1)
Moreover, a recent article of the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) cited a university study carried out on about 5,000 children and adolescents, which found links between exercise and exam success in English, mathematics and science and discovered an increase in performance for every extra 17 minutes boys exercised, and 12 minutes for girls (2). The study was carried out by the universities of Strathclyde and Dundee, and found physical activity particularly beneficial to girls’ performance at science; the authors said this could be a chance finding or reflect gender differences in the impact of physical activity on the brain. Overall, though, children who carried out regular exercise, not only did better academically at 11 but also at 13 and in their exams at 16, the study suggested. Dr Josie Booth of Dundee University in the UK, one of the leaders of the British study, said: “Physical activity is more than just important for your physical health. There are other benefits and that is something that should be especially important to parents, policy-makers and people involved in education.” (Ibid)
In addition, a 2010 report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services stated that across 50 studies undertaken on the subject of physical activity and academic performance, as reported in 43 separate academic articles, there were a total of 251 associations between physical activity and academic performance, which represented measures of academic achievement, academic behavior, and cognitive skills and attitudes (3). In the studies examined by the CDC report, “increased time in physical education appears to have a positive relationship or no relationship with academic achievement. Increased time in physical education does not appear to have a negative relationship with academic achievement. Eleven of the 14 studies found one or more positive associations between school-based physical education and indicators of academic performance; the remaining three studies found no significant associations.” (Ibid.) It is important to note that most of the scientific literature on the link between sports or physical exercise and performance in specifically academic settings are in reference to children and adolescents. However, for people of all ages, the overall connection between keeping the body in shape and the brain in tip-top shape cannot be denied.
A Complex Picture: Elite-Level Athletes in College Sports
While universities across the country offer a large number of collegiate sports for students, only a handful get wide recognition. Often those big-business sports – mostly football and basketball – feature students who sometimes having difficulty making the academic cut, for various reasons. For this reason, sometimes sports have gotten a bad rap as a negative factor in college academic performance. Yet this may be an unrelated issue – some students’ mediocre grades may simply reflect those students’ sharper focus on excelling in sports than in academics – which is not surprising in sports that offer the possibility of professional recruitment post-college.
The Global Post remarks that although student athletes’ performance can vary by sport, with the athletes in the most competitive and popular sports tending to exhibit lower academic performance, gender also plays a role (4). Female athletes consistently outperform both male athletes and male non-athletes, says the piece, citing an article in The New York Times. Worth noting too is that even women recruited specifically for their athletic prowess earn high marks, with average GPAs just .06 points behind female non-athletes, suggesting that the mere fact of participating in elite-level college athletics may bear little relationship to academic success.
Yet grades and GPA averages are not always the only measure of academic success. Many student athletes work hard to find a balance between their responsibilities. While some students may not have personal responsibilities, athletics, or the need to earn a living outside their studies, and post straight A’s, other students may have any or all of these other responsibilities and yet manage to post 3.9 GPAs throughout college. With all those responsibilities outside the classroom, no one could deny that 3.9 to be an impressive achievement. In short, while there are no comprehensive data that compare student athletes’ grades to those of their non-athlete peers, it is clear that the difference really comes down to personal drive, determination, and ability to organize and balance.
Getting Some Exercise Means Getting More Done
Ultimately, countless health benefits are brought on by physical activity – be it devotion to practicing an individual sport, team sports pick-up games, the weekend trip to the gym, or simply a daily walk around the block. When we take care of our bodies, our minds follow the positive pattern, and we are able to be the best we can be at academics – and beyond.
- Bernstein, Lenny. “A growing body of evidence links exercise and mental acuity”, published May 25, 2010 at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/05/24/AR2010052402608.html . Access date: February 26, 2013.
- “Exercise ‘boosts academic performance’ of teenagers”, published October 21, 2013 at http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-24608813 . Access date: February 26, 2013.
- “The Association Between School-Based Physical Activity, Including Physical Education, and Academic Performance”. July 2010, available at http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/health_and_academics/pdf/pa-pe_paper.pdf. Access date: February 26, 2013.
- “Academics of College Athletes vs. Non-Athletes”. Global Post. Available at http://everydaylife.globalpost.com/academics-college-athletes-vs-nonathletes-16678.html . Access date: February 26, 2013.